College & The Nurturing of New Mentors

College can be a scary place for someone with a disability, and having a guide can be the key to success. Several universities nationwide have major programs that help students with physical disabilities gain independence in their lives, covering everything from health quality to personal attendant management. While programs differ from school to school, one thing is universal: Students are at the heart of everything. Older students who have made the transition to college and figured out how to succeed share their wisdom with their younger peers. These mentors are key to younger students learning how to manage their lives, break into the social scene and have the full college experience. Here’s a look at three of the more innovative university mentoring programs from around the country.

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Katie Black and Caitlin Omness enjoy May Daze at Wright State University.

Wright State U.

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Photo courtesy of Wright State University

Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has a peer mentoring program befitting a school with some of the nation’s best disability services. WSU’s Office of Disability Services (ODS) provides career transition support, accessible campus housing, recreation opportunities and assistive technology, among many other things. The 18,000-student college even has a fully accessible tunnel system that allows all students with and without physical disabilities to move among its 22 buildings in the snowy Ohio winters. Its disability population is broad as well: 550 students are provided services by ODS, and staff estimate that around 125 have spinal-related disabilities.

In the mid-2000s, ODS introduced ED 101, a class about “developing peer mentors and student leaders with disabilities.” ED 101 is for upperclassmen to learn how to become peer mentors. It addresses several important aspects of mentorship: understanding the role of a peer mentor, communication, diversity, learning styles, leadership, understanding oneself, working with others and mentoring skills. Jean Denney, a staff member at ODS and instructor for the mentorship class, sees it as a powerful tool for continually learning students. “A number of our students are from out-of-state, and the mentorship program helps them know that there is another student watching out for them like a pal or big brother,” Denney explains. “Peer mentors can help the first-year students with finding the location of their classes, fixing broken wheelchairs, navigating campus, getting them to campus events, making friends, best places to study on campus, and thinking about their major and careers.”

Dan Darkow, a sophomore at WSU, has spinal muscular atrophy and had a very useful mentor last year. “He was always there and able to assist me,” Darkow says. “It was a really good support system.” After such a successful experience, Darkow recognized his opportunity to be a mentor this year and jumped right on it. He found that the university provided great support for upcoming mentors; for example, mentors take ED 101 the semester before their mentees arrive to campus, and come away prepared to help the incoming students with disabilities.

This year, Darkow has been accompanying his mentee to social scenes around his interests, taking him to student group events and introducing him to others. He’s also helped his mentee with the disability management part of life. For example, the two had a very successful brainstorming session around hiring nighttime personal attendants that focused on how to interview them, schedule mid-sleep turns and how to replace an aide if needed. For an incoming freshman that had never managed his full staff before, learning from someone with a similar disability was a lifesaver for Darkow’s mentee.

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students Residence Program (DSRP) has a mentorship program that builds off a powerful history. The DSRP emerged in the 1960s with Ed Roberts and the “rolling quads,” who are often identified as the founders of the modern disability rights movement. Those students recognized the importance of community and mentorship: A speech from Roberts himself said that role modeling is a key aspect of the disability rights movement. The DSRP these days builds on that legacy with a mentorship program that helps students transition to the college life and independence. “I want people to feel that they have a friend when they get here,” says Kevin Shields, the director of the DSRP for the past five years.

Through the mentorship program, Shields focuses on a combination of social skills and helping students feel comfortable living with a disability and all it entails. “You kind of have to develop this whole new skill set, such as being a manager of attendants and the like,” he says. He also sees the practicality in building social skills through mentorship and community. “It’s such an important part of employment and living that you can socialize well, especially when you have a disability,” he says.

To build up that comfort, Shields has formalized the mentorship program in his five years at the DSRP. Mentors and mentees were originally paired up one-on-one, but in the first couple years some mentors weren’t as engaged as their mentees needed. So, two years ago Shields started expanding the pool, working to increase the ratio of older students to incoming freshmen. “I figure around three people is good enough number that one of them will click with the new student,” he says, and usually one solid mentorship emerges for each new student.

Two students that clicked this year are freshman Nicholas “Nico” Clothier and fifth-year senior Benjamin Perez. Both have spinal cord injuries from their teenage years — Perez has a C5-6 injury from a diving accident when he was 16, and Clothier a C3-4 injury from diving into a pile of leaves at 15. Clothier appreciates that he has somebody to talk to about day-to-day living with SCI. “Back in high school, I didn’t have a lot of mentors, just people telling me, ‘some people get dealt a difficult hand,’” he says. “But now, it’s nice to have someone to talk to who’s been through most of the experiences I’m having, and I’m going through most of the experiences he’s had.”

The mentorship has become a comforting friendship as well. “It was the three-year anniversary of my injury in early November,” Clothier remembers. “I tried to distract myself a lot, and watch a movie. The day after, I was reading through some emails and saw what my parents felt, and the anxiety from the previous day came up. I was able to talk to Ben, and it was necessary.” Even on Perez’s end, helping another person with SCI has given him confidence. “Once I felt confident in my ability to manage the day-to-day, helping someone else was easy and almost cathartic. It showed me that I could manage my life and help someone else do it.”

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Photo courtesy of UIUC’s Beckwith Residential Support Services

Sometimes, mentorship programs focus more on easing the transition to college than arranging concrete year-long partnerships. This is the case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where a group of students connects with incoming freshmen the spring before they arrive on campus, keeps in touch over summer and then walks them through the first few weeks at school. Incoming freshmen even arrive a week before most other students for a six-day new student orientation, where they are greeted by a group of upperclassmen who give advice on various aspects of independence. Then, once fall classes begin, mentors work more informally with students to fine-tune the independent living skills they need to succeed. As for linking up students, Paige Lewis, a disability specialist at UIUC’s Beckwith Residential Support Services (BRSS), explains the school’s looser approach. “What I found to be most effective, is instead of assigning one-to-one, now I pretty much have one mentor to every two students,” she says. “This year it was actually one mentor to every three, because we had 11 new students.”

The mentors and incoming students don’t have specific pairings, which contributes to a larger conversation. “All of the mentors are reaching out to every single student in their new class,” Lewis explains. “They often also have a Facebook group where everyone is talking with each other. So it’s not just the mentors talking with the new students, but the new students talking with each other.” Jacob Head, currently a junior transfer at UIUC with a C5-6 injury, points to four mentors that have been in the program for a few years and helped him when he first arrived. Head spoke with a few mentors that walked him through life management details, like working with personal attendants, and now feels comfortable with how his skills have evolved.

The program is also looking to expand and improve. “At this point, we haven’t had a formal class,” Lewis explains. So instead of the current setup, with one mentor-led workshop each month covering topics from attendant management to housing, the program is trying something more regular. “For the fall, I’ve been working on making a pilot course.” A weekly class would aim to both help students build a full disability management skill set and keep them connected to their mentors for the full year. And when the class rolls around, at least one student might be interested in being on the teaching end. “I would definitely help them out, give advice and what-not,” Head says. Since life management classes are often advice with syllabi, perhaps he’ll find himself a professor before getting his bachelor’s.

Passing the Torch

Looking at the diverse approaches universities take to mentoring students with disabilities, it is apparent that there is no right or wrong formula. As much as mentoring helps the individuals involved, a well-thought out mentoring program can sustain and invigorate a university’s disability community. Mentees become mentors, the cycle repeats and the secrets to success proliferate.

Perez was in the room when Clothier pondered whether he would be a mentor at Berkeley next year. Clothier hesitated. “I’d like to, but I’m not sure if I’ll be ready,” he said.

Immediately, Perez assured him he would be more than ready. “There’s always somebody that’s just had a spinal cord injury who’s a little bit scared, and who will really benefit from your help,” he said. “You just need to have a little more experience and be willing to share.”