Thursday, April 18, 2024

TRIO program provides support

Aleksandra Sidorova

Midterms can be a challenging and stressful time for all college students, but it can be especially difficult for students with disabilities. According to the National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD), as of 2017, 19% of college students have a disability — most commonly, one that affects learning. Despite their constant busy schedules, the departments, dedicated to supporting students in need — Student Support Services (SSS) and Student Accessibility Services (SAS) located at Macomb Hall, in front of the Health Center — are as dedicated to their work as ever.

SSS has been part of the SUNY Plattsburgh campus since 1978, and SSS is part of a larger federal program called TRIO. Because the program is grant-funded, it can only provide support for a specific amount of students. According to SSS Academic Coach Rachel Day, every SUNY school has some kind of student support program. On average, the number of students that the program takes ranges between 100 and 200, but SUNY Plattsburgh’s SSS is one of the largest in the SUNY system, supporting 386 students.

“Every single one of those spots are filled, and we have a waiting list,” Day said.

Students can turn to SSS for any kind of help regarding academics, personal finance and planning. Services include academic advising, tutoring, assistance in finding jobs and internships, as well as workshops and classes focused on practical college skills, such as studying, time management, budgeting, planning for the future, and facilitating personal growth. There is even a food bank for those struggling with finances and meals.

Day said, “Honestly, I think just about every student at one point or another needs help with that stuff. We just put it right at the forefront for Student Support Services.”

She also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had strengthened the academic need among students. 

“I’m sure every student can relate to this: they have a question in class that they’re too afraid to ask,” Day said. “That’s where I come in — ask me those questions, and then I can help…like the middle person for students who haven’t quite yet found their voice in the classroom.”

Day has been working at SSS since 2016, but has been on campus since 2012. Before that, she was a high school teacher. 

“When the position opened at Student Support Services, I jumped in with both feet. I want to be able to give back, and help where I can when I can,” she said. 

Day herself was a first-generation student at SUNY Plattsburgh, and had received help from another program under the TRIO Student Support umbrella — the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). She notes that the program bears some similarities with SSS, as they both provide support services for eligible students in need. According to the EOP page on the university website, it is a program for students “ineligible for admission under traditional standards,” and has been running since 1969.

“I know what that feels like to have struggles,” Day said. “Having walked that line — you don’t know how to do your FAFSA, you don’t know how to sign up for classes, you don’t have anyone you can really ask that question to in your family. We become that family here. We become the answers to those questions.”

All SSS employees fit one or more of the criteria for students to apply for the program: they were either a first-generation college student themselves, came from low-income families or have a disability. 

“Sometimes students aren’t even aware that they’re eligible for Student Support Services, and don’t end up using the services we have,” Day said.

To maintain their place at SSS, eligible students must reapply to the program at the start of every academic year, and according to Day, most students do stay in the program until they graduate. Additionally, students need to maintain 10 contacts per academic year, including advising sessions, meetings with staff, cultural and academic events, and others. The most recent SSS event — De-stress with SSS — was held on Friday, Oct. 15.

SSS has only five employees to take care of their 386 students. Day teaches a Career and Life Planning class, runs appointments and advising meetings every half hour, most of which are fully booked.

“Advisement here is off the charts busy,” she said. “We usually have a line out the door of students, and it’s a revolving door the whole entire time.”

Despite her busy schedule, especially during the periods of midterms and registration, Day is fully devoted to her job.

“The work we get to do is very meaningful, and I know every person in here enjoys helping the students,” she said. “To be quite honest, I know it sounds cheesy, but our students 100% come first. This isn’t an eight to four type of office: we are here all of the time… If a student emails, and it’s 10 o’clock at night, and they really need something, someone’s going to get back to them.”

Day attributes such a “culture” to Michele Carpentier, who served as the director of SSS until last year. Now, she is the director of Special Programs, as well as vice president of Student Enrollment and Success.

“Michele is the most wonderful, kind, giving human being on this planet, who would do anything for any single student at any time.” Day said. “She really instilled [the work culture] into us as workers. It’s phenomenal. Student Support Services wouldn’t be what it is without Michele Carpentier — I have to say that — she made this program what it is, and how wonderful it is.”

While SSS is a grant-funded program that supports a limited number of eligible students from different backgrounds, the goal of SAS as a state-funded program is to provide accommodations for disabilities students may have, both permanent and temporary.

The support that they can offer to disabled students includes extra time for exams, note-taking services, advocacy, referrals for tutoring, counseling and academic coaching, electronic versions of textbooks and more. They also work to provide mobility aids and process requests for emotional support animals and housing accommodations. As Coordinator for Accessibility Services Jennifer Curry describes it, the job of the SAS staff is to negotiate accommodations with their respective departments.

“We don’t feel that a student should have to negotiate with faculty to get accommodation,” she said.

One way that accommodations in college differ from accommodations in high school is that some services, like assignment extensions, cannot be guaranteed and are handled on a case-by-case basis.

“When [students] leave college, we want [them] to be prepared to advocate on [their] own behalf, so I work with students when I’m doing this advocacy, to teach them how they might best approach advocacy within the classroom,” Curry said. “Some students are just not comfortable doing so, and there may be other reasons why they may not, and I can [advocate for them].”

Although SAS is able to serve more students than a grant-funded program like SSS, students must specifically identify their disability to SAS and request a service or accommodation.

“Students that are coming in from high school assume that their [Individual Accommodation Plan] or 504 Plan, or medical information automatically transfer, and that’s not the case.” Curry said.

However, once a student applies for SAS, they may use their services until they graduate, with no need to reapply. 

According to Curry, SAS serves around 900 students on both the Plattsburgh and Queensbury campuses. However, not every disabled student utilizes their services.

“We know that we don’t serve every student on campus who identifies as having a disability, because it’s their decision if they want to report that,” Curry said. “And a lot of students don’t realize that having a mental health diagnosis does meet eligibility requirements.”

Other reasons why eligible students may not use SAS are social stigma around disability and mental health, and simply not being aware of the accommodation services available to them at the college.

Curry also mentioned that in total, SAS has a staff of three: one full-time staff member, and two three-quarter members. Despite that, SAS is open to serving more students.

“I’ll meet with students at any point throughout the semester; any point throughout their time [at SUNY Plattsburgh],” Curry said. “I’m very passionate about self-advocacy and making sure that students — anybody — have access to what they need to be successful. Seeing people meet [their] goals… that makes me feel very happy with what I do. It makes me want to come to work and help as many people as I possibly can.”

Breana Warren, a senior majoring in psychology, is in her second semester as a mentor, having joined the SSS Peer Mentoring program in the spring. So far, she has had two mentees, and is ready for a third one. According to her, there is no single role that a mentor plays.

“The dynamics of the mentorship is completely up to the mentor and mentee,” Warren said.

Typically, she has one-on-one meetings with her mentees, where they do crafts, such as making slime, and catch up with each other. Mentors can also play a “buddy” role, as they tend to be paired with mentees based on their interests and fields of study. An SSS student can also turn to their mentor for advice, guidance, or help with homework.

“If the mentee is having a hard time, or needs resources, or, honestly, just someone to socialize with, that’s what [mentors] are here for,” Warren said. “I think it’s beneficial for both sides.”

She shared that the program helped her break out of her comfort zone by forcing her to socialize. She also notes that becoming a mentor has helped her be more aware of campus events and happenings, as well as the struggles of other students, giving her an opportunity to help more people.

Warren’s mentee — Bryn Fawn, a social work major — said that mentors not only help new students transition into college, but they can help students with their careers and goals for the future. She also values the opportunity to interact with upperclassmen. 

“As a freshman, almost all my classes are also just freshmen, so it’s a lot harder to make friends with upperclassmen,” Fawn said. “Upperclassmen know just about everything: they’ve been through the ringer — they know their shit. It’s basically like having an older sibling to help you out.”

Eventually, Fawn plans to become an SSS mentor herself. 

Fawn qualifies for SSS on all three criteria: they are a disabled first-generation student from a low-income family. According to them, their college experience would be difficult without the services that SSS provides.

“Taking [the career-life planning] course definitely helped, especially with budgeting money for everyday life,” Fawn said. “When I go grocery shopping, it’s in the back of my head — what I learned. And so, I’ve been able to spend my money more wisely.”

They list Day, Warren and Athena Castro-Lewandowski, the writing specialist and English tutor at SSS, as important resources for them when it comes to information and academic guidance.

SAS has provided her with a number of accommodations for her ADHD, autism and anxiety, such as extended testing time, the ability to record lectures, and a single room to live in. The services of both SSS and SAS have helped Fawn so much that she makes sure to ask anyone she meets whether they are part of SSS, and tell them about it.

“[SSS] really does help,” Fawn said. “It’s a very valuable resource, and I really hate that people don’t know about it.”

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