Conquering College: Activating your campus tools

Person wearing backpack surrounded by books on shelves

Lessons learned the hard way: 

In the first blog of this two-part series I wrote about planning and perseverance and that theme carries into this post: You can check out Part 1 here. Not only was I the first person in my immediate family to attend college and graduate, I did so as a blind Latino living in southern California. As with many high school students, dinner table discussions during my later years of high school frequently centered on the need to plan for college â€” eventually even my grandparents contributed to the conversation. On a warm sunny mid-June day at the high school finish line, graduation, I knew for certain that higher education was in the cards for me, but that was as far as my preparation went. What I didn’t realize was that applying for college and getting accepted, going to class and doing my homework was only the beginning of what I needed to know and do to succeed in college. 

I spent my first semester after high learning the hard way that college is different from high school! I was literally learning about how to register for courses, enroll with the Disabled Student Services office, locate the bookstore, find the bus stop and apply for financial aid; while I was simultaneously trying to take classes, study, and complete assignments.  As you can imagine, anxieties and sleepless nights were common. 

I attribute the poor grades I earned my first semester to my lack of preparation. I was determined to succeed, so I knew something had to change. I started asking myself some hard questions: 

  • What could I have done to be ready for the competitive college experience on day one?  
  • Who should I have talked to six-months earlier to get the answers to my question?  
  • Where were those who said I was going to do just fine? 

When that “ah-ha” moment hit, I vowed then and there that I would not let my disappointment over my first semester sour my mood or discourage me from finishing college. From that day forward, I made it my mission to focus on becoming organized, resourceful, and knowledgeable about my college experiences. From the depths of disorganization, confusion, and nagging doubts; I began to establish goals, find mentors, and learn how to network and who to network with. 

Getting oriented to campus life … 

You’ve graduated high school and college is looming. You’ve made it this far and yet your nerves are a tangled mess. What is the first step to overcome the anxieties and uncertainty of post high school life; and who do you talk to?  Take The College-Ready Challenge

One of the first things you’ll want to do, whether you are commuting to and from campus or living in the dorm, is to get to know your surroundings. Ideally, an orientation & mobility (O&M) specialist would be assigned through your vocational rehabilitation office. Before meeting with the O&M specialist take some time to identify locations on campus that you are likely to frequent the most (i.e., bus stop or dorm room, laundry, cafeteria, coffee shop, or a few campus restaurants, the bookstore, gym, and library, are all good places to know). When you get your class schedule, start by learning routes from your transportation drop off/bus stop or dorm room to the cluster of buildings where many of your classes will be. Next, learn where the bookstore, disabled student services, coffee hangouts and financial aid offices are. It won’t hurt to also have the phone number to campus security in your back pocket or on your favorites list pre-programmed on your phone. Campus security officers are also good people to get to know, so you can reach out to them for support and guidance in a pinch. 

Work with disabled student services. 

While community, state, and private, colleges and both small and large Universities have resources to support the needs of students with disabilities; it’s up to you to let them know that you qualify for services and that you may need assistance and accommodations. Each campus has a slightly different name for their disabled student services. These programs may look and feel slightly different from campus to campus. The bottom line is that they exist to help you achieve access equity with your peers on campus. If you need testing accommodations, priority registration, assistance in identifying as a person with a qualified disability, this is the service that you turn to. Unlike what you may have received as entitled to you in high school and earlier, this is your time to shine. You are not required to identify as a person with a disability, so it’s your responsibility to register and acknowledge your disability. The sooner that you identify and register, the sooner supports will be available to you. 

Readers and Notetakers: 

Adaptive and mainstream technology has advanced to the point where you may be thinking would ever never need to hire a reader or notetaker. I promise, working with a reader and or note taker for some of your more challenging courses may just be the difference between that “A” or “B” grade. Some of the advantages of working with a human reader include assistance with: locating books in the library, navigating inaccessible online portals, and describing graphs, charts, images, and videos used in classes. A class notetaker can help with transcribing notes from the board and other media where additional thoughts and concepts are being drafted in real time by the instructor. Identifying a personal reader or notetaker can be as simple making a class announcement—with the professor’s permission—to see if anyone would like to work with you. In some instances, your campus disabled student services may recruit readers and notetakers through a stipend and/or priority registration for the upcoming term. In other instances, your vocational rehabilitation program may be able to pay for the notetaker or reader’s time. Finally, if your financial aid and or part-time work income allows for such, you can pay for their time yourself. Ask the disabled student services office or other students with disabilities about compensation rates at your school. 

Campus Success! 

With your campus supports in place, favorite haunts established, enrollment with disabled student services completed and you reader and notetaker contracts in place; it’s time to get involved in campus activities, clubs and organizations. College is about more than going to class and working for good grades. A huge part of the experience of campus life is getting involved. Whether it’s through your school’s newspaper or bulletin boards in the library or student union, there are plenty of clubs, groups, and activities to catch your interest. From advocacy programs, to service-oriented clubs, to cultural and community engagement, participate and share your experience. Before you know it, your networking skills will be off the charts and you will have several experiences that will make you that much more employable. 

Finally, make time to have fun with people. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones who support and encourage your academic and career ambitions is a critical support as you navigate the challenges and successes of post high school life. For additional resources and information on attending college with a physical disability, visit: A Guide for College Students with Physical Disabilities