Campus News

Peer Mentors Help Students with Disabilities Adjust to Oberlin

March 4, 2016
Lisa Gulasy
group photo of student accessibility advocates
Student Accessibility Advocates stop for a photo in the Science Center in August 2015 while undergoing their week-long training program. First row, l-r: Rebecca Klein, El Wilson, and Yemko Pryor. Second row, l-r: Charlie Martin, Dominic Fiallo, Mike Martin, Chalres Ryan, Associate Director of the Office of Disability Services Isabella Moreno ’94, Alex Wagman, and Sadie Oliver-Grey. Photo provided by Isabella Moreno ’94.

Whether from Ohio, across the country, or across the world, every student who comes to Oberlin must adjust to college life. While this transition is not easy for most, it can be particularly difficult for students with disabilities.

Associate Director of the Office of Disability Services Isabella Moreno ’94 says this is often due to two factors. First, it is the responsibility of college students to seek out accommodations for their disabilities. “In the K-12 system, a parent, guardian, or service provider works with the school to determine what the accommodations will be for students with disabilities on an individual basis. It is mandated by law that K-12 students get their services,” she says. “When students with disabilities go to college, no one comes after them and no one goes to the family. Not because we don’t want to, but because it’s against the law. Students have to self disclose.”

Second, students do not want others to know about their disabilities. “It’s not uncommon for students who had accommodations in grade school and high school to take the position that they don’t want them in college. ‘I want to do it on my own,’ they’ll say. ‘I want to be like everybody else. I don’t want anyone to see me differently.’”

This combination, Moreno says, can lead a student with disabilities to struggle not just academically, but also socially, mentally, and sometimes physically. The good news is that, by registering with the Office of Disability Services, students with disabilities can take advantage of a variety of helpful resources. The Student Accessibility Advocate program is just one of those resources.

“Been There, Done That, and Thriving”

Student Accessibility Advocates (SAAs) are upper class peer mentors who can answer questions and offer advice about academics, clubs, organizations, and other resources on campus. Like the individuals they mentor, SAAs have a disability, whether visible or invisible (disabilities that are not immediately apparent). Moreno says pairing students with disabilities helps younger students feel comfortable talking about their disabilities and also offers them first-person narratives of struggle and success that they could not get from students without disabilities.

“Navigating college with disabilities is very different. It is fundamental to the program that SAAs have their own stories; to be able to say, ‘This is how I did that,’ and not, ‘I heard someone did this, or my sister told me she did this.’ This is about first-person experience,” she says.

She continues, “The slogan I’ve been using for the SAAs is ‘Been there, done that, and thriving.’ SAAs have gone through the bumps young students with disabilities are going through. They’ve not disclosed to our office, failed classes, gotten academic warnings, taken personal or medical leave, but they figured it out and they’re thriving now. That’s why I feel they are such phenomenal mentors.”

Started in 2012 with five SAAs, the program has grown to nine SAAs who mentor six students each. SAAs undergo a week-long training program in the summer where they visit different campus offices and their staff—from the Counseling Center and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life to the Multicultural Resource Center and recreation center—and meet with deans and others who provide ongoing support and are resources for students. “We cover everything so they can truly be resources for incoming students,” Moreno says.

According to Moreno, the SAAs are incredibly diverse—they’re double-degree students, student athletes, LGBTQ, etc.—all in an effort to ensure successful mentor-mentee relationships. A SAA will mentor a student for one academic year, though Moreno says many relationships continue as friendships long after.

Third-year guitar performance and creative writing major Rebecca Klein is working as a SAA for the second year. Like most SAAs, she is in contact with her mentees weekly, whether she’s meeting them for a meal or study session or simply checking in through text or email.

Klein says the benefits of the SAA program are plentiful. “There are many benefits to the program concerning academics and resources, but I think the main benefit is the immediate realization that you’re not alone on campus if you live with a disability. The program gives students with disabilities a community that they might not have known existed,” she says. Klein says the program also gives her and other SAAs the opportunity to create a dialogue about disability on campus.

Moreno agrees: “Twenty percent of the population of Oberlin College discloses with our office. We are the largest sub-group on this campus,” she says. “[And yet] talking about disabilities remains very taboo. We should be able to talk about disabilities in the same way and with the same comfort as people on this campus talk about race, gender, and socioeconomic issues. The SAA program is about helping students one-on-one, but it’s also about raising awareness.”

While Moreno acknowledges that participating in the SAA program does not guarantee success for students with disabilities, she says teaming up with an upper class mentor can be a good place to start. “If you’re a first- or second-year student registered with the Office of Disability Services and you are not doing as well as you want to do academically or socially, inquire about being teamed up with a SAA.”

The Office of Disability Services also offers other resources that can help students with disabilities succeed academically, including hosting dinners, study sessions, and other events to help build community. Moreno encourages any students with disabilities who have not registered with the office to do so as soon as possible so they may begin to take advantage of these offerings.

For more information about the Office of Disability Services, contact 440-775-5588 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information about the Student Accessibility Advocate program, contact Isabella Moreno directly at imoreno@oberlin.edu.

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