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Battling for My Education as a Person With Learning Disabilities

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As a child I was diagnosed with an auditory and language processing disorder. This means as any auditory information comes to me, there is a delay in my ability to process and retain that information. Additionally, as an adult I was diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD. I have felt these diagnoses stack up against me many times throughout my life. They create a barrier that is often difficult to overcome, especially throughout my education.

From a very young age my parents pushed me to advance myself through education. My parents are from the West Indies and never even had the chance to finish high school. I felt a responsibility to beat the odds and better myself. After my time serving in the war I decided to pursue my Master’s degree. I had many people throughout my life who inspired me to pursue a degree in social work. I felt this path would give me the opportunity to serve others, similar to the work I did in the military.

I applied to many schools and was accepted to Columbia University in the spring of 2011. To say I was intimidated and nervous for the coursework ahead of me was an understatement. I knew from the beginning things would be more difficult for me due to my disabilities, but I couldn’t have imagined the uphill battle I would face.

During my first year I was taking academic classes, interning and working a full-time job. For this program, I had to maintain a field placement of 21 hours per week and take two courses a semester in order to be considered full-time. My first field placement was not a nice experience and I was pulled out of the facility by my field advisor. The supervisor at this placement was not acting in a professional matter and did not support me in my efforts to learn. The University was unable to find me an alternative placement. It became apparent that I would have difficulty finding a field placement on Long Island.

I became frustrated because I needed to take classes and have a field placement simultaneously in order to fulfill Columbia’s requirements, and that wasn’t happening. I then met with multiple members from Columbia University including the Dean, representatives from the disabilities office, representatives from the field placement and my academic advisor. In that meeting we decided I would take a leave of absence in order to recuperate and come back in a better mindset able to continue my education. Although I was disappointed about having to take the time off, feeling as though I was taking one step forward and two giant steps backwards, I knew ultimately it was the best decision for me.

I returned two years later in the spring semester of 2015. During those years off I tried to prepare myself by volunteering in organizations that employed social workers and would help me regain skills. I volunteered with Gurwin Adult Day Program, Northport VA Hospital and Hospice as a friendly companion to the residents. I would engage in activities with them to help them stay focused and busy.

I took it upon myself to make a professional portfolio to show Columbia University all the efforts I had made to improve my professional skills during my leave and prove I was ready to return. I felt empowered and prepared to do the work required of me. I returned to Columbia in the fall of 2015, ready to hit the ground running. I landed an internship at one of the organizations I had volunteered with, Gurwin Adult Day Program. This program is for senior citizens and other eligible candidates that require assistance for care and to stay active during the day. The workload was demanding. When I first started, one of my mentors said “I don’t mean to be harsh but you’re not going to have any time,” and boy was she right. I was interning for 21 hours, taking three courses, and working full-time. Life was hectic and every day felt like a battle, especially since this would be my life for the next two years.

Not only did I have no time for myself, but the workload was extremely demanding. I struggled to process the information and retain it. I had multiple tutors and utilized all accommodation services Columbia would offer me. When I felt like giving up, I remembered all the people fighting for me and with me in this battle. I couldn’t give in now. Tasks constantly took me longer to complete and were more difficult, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Those two years were the most difficult times of my life but also the most rewarding. I graduated with my Master’s in social work in May 2017. There was no greater feeling then walking across that stage and being handed my diploma. I had done it; I was officially a social worker.

That was not the last battle I would face.

Another battle lies ahead of me — taking my state licensing exam for social work. This exam is a culmination of all the material I learned in school and in my field placements. The studying and work is all my responsibility. I study independently with tutors and am taking a lot of time and effort to be successful. The exam is 170 multiple choice questions on the computer. I will have an additional burden going into the exam: being challenged by my learning disabilities. My disabilities will cause me to have to work harder than most of my peers, but I will do it.

I will find out instantly if I pass or fail. I know that one day I will pass and that will be one of the greatest accomplishments I have ever achieved. I will celebrate and feel empowered by knowing I overcame something especially difficult for me. It would be nice to get together with my family, friends, mentors and tutors, all of those people that were supportive of me throughout my education to thank them for their assistance. Most importantly I want to thank the Lord for giving me the strength to overcome any obstacles.

Many doors will open for me if I have my license. There will be many more job opportunities, many more connections to be made, and many more lives to positively impact. I would like to find a career that focuses on helping veterans or people who were incarcerated try to transition into everyday life. I feel like those people have extra obstacles to face, and not enough is done to help them through these challenging times.

Originally published: December 5, 2018
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