One of the first things I learned graduating high school and going to college, was that college requires a lot more responsibilities and work. In high school, you may have had a whole support group behind you, such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc. In college, you're on your own to find the help you need, even if you don't know what that need is yet. The following are a few tips to assist in your quest for higher education.
Start early. I started visiting colleges during my sophomore year of high school. Make sure to get an appointment with the disability services (this term goes by various names at different colleges) office to discuss what they have to offer you. Listen to what they say. The disability services office can make or break your choice in colleges. The first college I visited was not wheelchair accessible. However, that meeting taught me how to handle interviews, what I could expect in the way of assistance, and how to advocate for myself. I quickly dropped another choice after the coordinator told me I shouldn't go to a university, but should attend the community college in my county. My "first choice" college was very accommodating and the disability coordinator was welcoming. The college I chose to attend accepted me with open arms and although it's one of the oldest colleges, they were willing to make changes for me. They didn't seem to mind when I left my "marks" on the narrow doorways of the 150-year-old buildings!
Create a plan. Once you've decide on a college, schedule another meeting with the disability services office to discuss the plan for your accommodations. Meet with the Campus Life Office to talk about dorm life and whether or not you will have a roommate. In my case, I didn't because of all my equipment. It is very important to meet with the Head of Safety to come up with a plan in case of fire, tornado, medical issues or emergencies. In one experience, there was an alarm set off one morning. I was stuck in bed while everyone else left the building. Our plan failed. Because we had a plan in place, my mother demanded a meeting to be held with the fire department, safety department, disability services, and campus life to develop a better plan for all students with disabilities. Never underestimate the power of Mom (or any other advocate on your side).
If you have to hire a Personal Care Attendant (PCA), a good one is essential to a successful year. My disability coordinator suggested I place an advertisement on the school's website. I found out the hard way if you hire a student, you will definitely need a contingency plan. I discovered that just because someone is older, doesn't mean they will not get distracted. More than once, I was stuck in bed and had to wait for hours for my back up to help me.
It is important to set ground rules early in the process. You need to decide what you expect the PCA to do for you. Put the agreement in writing so everyone knows and understands what is expected. If possible, talk with this person about other things. This will also help them become familiar with your speech patterns. It is important for your PCA to really get to know you as a person and not just a job. They will be less likely to blow off their responsibility if they have a personal interest in you. The relationship with your PCA can help support you in trying times. In my case, my PCA was also my note taker. She attended my classes with me and wrote notes, scribed papers and tests, and when needed, translated for me.
Have a social life. Almost as important as going to classes is going to social events. It's important for people to get to know you because one day you may need to ask them for assistance or support. As I participated in the social side of college, I began to feel an attachment to the school. When people started seeing me around campus, more and more people started to talk to me outside of classes.
It's very important to get to know the staff at the college. Not just the professors, but also the security officers, housekeepers, secretaries, and cafeteria workers. I am on a first name basis with many of the workers in the dining hall. I always get the best cuts of meats and usually more than I can eat.
Meet with your professors by yourself so they can get to know you. Your note taker can sit with you or anywhere in the room. Make sure your professors get a copy of your 504 plan (or other college plan/paperwork describing your accommodations). There are many ways of participating in class; raising your hand, being an active listener, and laughing at the instructor's jokes are a few.
Attending college was the most liberating feeling I had in my life. At times, it seemed like I was just spinning my wheels. My professors said that feeling was normal. College is life changing for everyone and during the first days, most first year students are looking for the same things...friends. My number one piece of advice is to get involved. Most colleges have mixers in the first few weeks so you can get to know each other. Stay determined, keep up with your studies, follow these tips and you will have a successful first year.
That's how I roll.....
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