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When You're Mighty and Starting College

Maybe you’ve just graduated from high school, or maybe you’ve been out of high school for years and want to further your education. No matter who you are, starting or going back to college can feel overwhelming, so if you live with mental illness, chronic illness, a learning disability or a physical disability, you aren’t alone if you’re both excited and nervous about embarking on this next step in your life.

I have cerebral palsy and use a wheelchair. When the fall semester begins, I’ll start my eleventh year teaching academic writing to college freshmen. This means I’ve spent a lot of time collecting tips, first as a student and then as an instructor, for how to have a healthy, rewarding college experience. One of the directors of Disability Services at my university used to say, “Universal design hurts no one.” She was referring to accessibility in construction, but I think that mantra also applies to my tips. They were especially important for me as a student with a disability, but all students who take advantage of them can benefit.

Register for classes as soon as you are eligible to do so.

Freshmen at many universities will be required to sign up for new student orientations before they can register for classes. I recommend that you sign up for the earliest new student orientation you can so that you can create your schedule as early as possible. The earlier you register, the more flexibility you will have in your schedule. If the campus is a considerable distance from where you live, and you will be catching a ride with someone (as I do), you may want to go to class only two days a week. On the other hand, if you’ll be living on campus and need to take breaks throughout the day, you might want to schedule one or two classes per day throughout the week.

Classes fill up quickly, so if you need to fit your classes around transportation, therapies,or work schedules, claim your spot in your classes as soon as you can. Parking spaces are limited on most campuses, so if you can, sign up for classes at less popular times. Check with the Advising or Registrar’s office at your university for information about which classes don’t tend to fill up.

Request accommodations as soon as possible.

I’m mainly thinking of classroom and testing accommodations here. If you have a documented disability that qualifies you for extra time on exams, for example, visit the Disability Services office as soon as you have a class schedule. When I started college, I had to take my documentation to the Disability Services office. I received paperwork that listed the accommodations I was eligible for. The paperwork contained a place for me to fill in the name and number of each one of my classes. Once classes began, I needed to have all my professors sign the paperwork. This process may be handled differently now that most paperwork is completed digitally.

These days, I receive an email from the Disability Services office whenever I’m beginning a course with a student who is eligible for accommodations. The email tells me the student’s name and what accommodations they need. Your Disability Services office may not contact your professors for you, so let your professors know how early and often how they can help you. Before you need the accommodations, let your professors know what you need. My experience was that professors were happy to provide the accommodations, but I know not everyone has this experience.

In the U.S., you have a legal right to receive the accommodations you qualify for because of your documented disability. If you have trouble receiving your accommodations, contact your Disability Services office. Note that you must provide Disability Services with medical documentation that illustrates the necessity of the accommodations you need. If Disability Services doesn’t have your documentation on file, your professors do not have to provide your accommodations.

As far as on-campus housing accommodations for people with disabilities, I can’t offer much perspective. I wasn’t able to live on campus. I’ve heard that at some universities, some dorm rooms are more accessible than others. Assuming this is the case, make your housing arrangements as soon as you can.

Consider e-textbooks.

They usually cost significantly less than their printed equivalents. If you need to carry them around, they can be transported on devices, such as your phone or tablet, which are much lighter than the traditional textbook. Also, e-books allow you to highlight and make notes with your fingertips. Highlighting and making notes as you read is important in college. Many e-books also have a feature that will read the text out loud. E-textbooks are available through most well-known booksellers. Sometimes, when I can’t find an e- textbook on Amazon, I can find it on VitalSource.com.

Review course material and work on assignments a little bit at a time.

Movies may have glamorized cramming, but in the long run, it doesn’t make for happy college students. It only adds to stress, and if there’s one thing Mighty college students don’t need, it’s added stress. You may have to allow yourself extra time to move from class to class, or you may have to get to campus early, depending on when you can get a ride. One of the things you can do with this spare time is review.

Look into what medical and counseling services are available to you.

Most universities offer counseling and medical services on campus, and many universities cover a certain number of medical and counseling visits with student fees. When I was in college the first time, the staff at medical services was great about providing samples of necessary medication and prescriptions as inexpensively as possible. I encourage you to remind your fellow students
about these services if someone reaches out to you for help. I find that too many students either don’t know or seem to forget that counseling and medical services are available on campus.

Know that faculty/staff members and students will be happy to help you.

I’m not able to take notes during lectures and meetings, and I was surprised at how many students were willing to share their notes with me. Would it help if someone opened the door or carried a bag for you? Many people would be happy to do that. If someone seems reluctant, keep your chin up and ask someone else. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or frustrated, please reach out. You are not alone. Yes, not everyone has your conditions, but they might be able to relate to what you’re struggling with. I find that often, even when people can’t relate, they care. Keep looking for people who support you. They are out there.

Faculty and staff are not out to intimidate students or to make their lives miserable. Rather, faculty and staff want to help students grow and succeed in college. My colleagues and I love it when students come to us for help or to have their questions answered. If you are struggling with course material or with anything else related to the college experience, try going to a faculty or staff member. Some of these folks have been on campus for a while and can point you to resources and groups you didn’t know about.

Try not to compare your college experience to someone else’s.

I struggled with what to title this section because we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but we do. It’s human nature. If you’re like me, there will be times when you compare your college experience to someone else’s. I know I worried that I was missing out because I couldn’t live on campus or in my own apartment and couldn’t always go to campus events. But college student bodies are so diverse. There are students just out of high school and students who have had numerous careers and/or have raised families before or while going to college.

Some students with disabilities request accommodations relating to their conditions; others choose not to request accommodations. All students have to juggle classes, recreation and other aspects of life in whatever ways work for them. There is no particular look and feel to the college experience. As you live your college experience, please be safe, plan ahead, ask for help when you need it, and don’t forget self-care.

Remember, you are Mighty!

Getty image by Gorodenkoff.