Special Guest Writer-Avery Thompson: Tips for Students with Disabilities

Fellow readers,

I challenge you to the simple task of tying your shoes. Easy right? Oh, I forgot to mention one thing. Tie your shoes with one hand behind your back and your left eye covered. I challenge you again. Attend a university, community college, or any form of post-high school education. Easy right? Now endure your schooling with a learning or physical disability. A disability is any mental or physical condition serving as a limitation or hindrance on movements, activities, or senses. I offer up this scenario to give you an idea of the life of a college student with disabilities which include added difficulties to everyday endeavors.

There is a social stigma regarding the word “disabled.” It is this 3 syllable word that society defines as something wrong or different. Let’s all remember one thing. A disability is nothing to be ashamed of or seen as less than. I equate a disabled individual as someone who is running a race uphill while everyone else is running a straight path. I can attest to these tips because I apply them to my life every day after I had a retinal detachment at age 17. After several surgeries, my vision was left extremely impaired. Although this has caused limitations and issues within my academic career, I won’t allow this to define me or be a setback to my future. Disabilities, including my retinal detachment, are not academic-ending impairments. My hope is to offer tips for college success to those who have disabilities or those with relationships with disabled individuals.

Let’s run this race together

1) Accept Help

As a disabled student, you have been given a challenging aspect in your life and academic career. Because of this challenge, most institutions provide accommodations to aid these obstacles; accept this help and take advantage of it. At first, I did not want to get any help; I just wanted to tough it out and do it on my own. I finally and realized that the Disability Resource Center is there to help me; I needed their help. If you have been given extra time on exams, use it. If you have been given alternative options like paper copies, use them. If you have been given copies of visual note presentations, use them. If you have been given assistive technologies like audio or braille books or audio note translators, use them. Exploit these resources. Also, exploit resources that are given campus wide; I urge you to go to office hours to form relationships with your professors and use tutoring resources. Make good use of the opportunities you have been given.

2. Plan, plan, and plan!

I believe the most vital task for academic success is applying effort into creating and executing a plan. This will set the tone for your intentions for optimal performance. Tools like Google Calendar, for example, are free and allow users to plan and track day-to-day duties. The tool that has helped me the most is keeping an academic calendar. Filling out academic calendars allows you to view your current and upcoming assignments from different viewpoints including daily, weekly, and monthly. It is beneficial to look ahead at upcoming assignments, but don’t look so far ahead that you create unwanted and unnecessary mental and emotional strains. The viewpoint that has been the most helpful to me is the weekly approach. I start at the very beginning of each week and make a list of what I will need to accomplish that week. Furthermore, it is helpful to add a task to your list immediately after gaining knowledge about that task; this is most useful for those who have memory troubles. Also, order tasks by urgency. Planning through academic calendars and lists equip you to stay on task and not take in too much information.

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3. Organize and Manipulate Studying Methods

Every individual, disabled or not, prefers and succeeds in certain study methods over others. No matter the method… have a method! It may take trial and error but acquire a study method that is specialized to your particular strengths and weaknesses regarding your disability. The most beneficial study method for my set of circumstances is flash cards. I transfer my consolidated notes to flashcards right after class; this is an automatic review session and forces you to acknowledge the material when it is fresh in your brain. While using flashcards, color coding the cards or using various colors of ink allows you to generate the information in a grouping fashion. Whether you use flashcards or not, studying works best during “prime mental time” which is the time you are most productive. While studying, find an adequate environment that will aid in keeping you focused. Decide if your study environment needs to be quiet vs. background noise, alone vs. study partners, or outside vs. inside of various locations. General study tips can include rewriting important definitions or formulas for memorization, doing practice problems or exams, taking breaks, and creating mnemonic devices for mental associations.

4. Utilize All Resources

There are endless avenues of assistance that are intended to extend a helping hand. In other words, seek help beyond local resources. For those with learning disabilities, the National Center for Learning Disabilities empowers student, revolutionizes education, campaigns for equal rights, and provides scholarships and awards. Also, for those with speech disorders, the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association aims to provide educational resources, and the Center for Hearing and Communication includes up to date information on speech technology. There are a wide range of disabilities but an even wider range of outlets that administer support and services.

problem-2731501_960_720.jpgUltimately, you need to understand that disabilities DO NOT inhibit or eliminate academic success. Focusing on positive features of your disability will lead to a positive outlook in your academic career. College is a pivotal stepping stone in the path of life. Whether you will embark on this journey in the future or are enduring the journey right now, just know college is demanding when carrying a disability on your shoulders. Although it’s difficult, you can make it easier by accepting help, planning, manipulating study methods, and utilizing all resources.

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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Tips for Letters of Recommendation

It is the time when college seniors are applying to graduate/professional school. If this is you, be aware of an important part of your application—letters of recommendation (sometimes called a letters of reference). These letters involve a writer describing various aspects of you—skills, personality, work habits, achievements, etc. These letters are important for those wanting to attend graduate/professional school, but also for those applying for a job, scholarship, etc. Here are some important questions you need to ask yourself concerning letters of recommendations. A lot of what advice I will offer you is based on serving on graduate admission committees for 30 years, as well as talking to countless faculty members and career counselors over these years.

What kind of letter do you need?

Your letters need to say who you really are. Decision makers can always look at your transcript for your classes/specific grades, and they can scan your resume for a basic summary of your life experiences. However, a letter of recommendation should give the reader real insight into who you are. In this way, each letter needs to cover both your personal qualities (e.g., strengths, personality, leadership qualities, and interests) and your academic abilities.

I believe that each letter should be long/detailed, and very positive. A long/detailed letter shows that the letter writer really knew you. As for positive nature of each letter, you may wonder why a letter that communicates who you are should not include your “blemishes”. My answer to this is that any less than complimentary remark may lower your chances of selection. Remember, the competition is fierce! You must have letters that make you stand out among the crowd. I have seen remarks like “he is sometimes quiet” lead to a negative evaluation by a decision maker.

The only way a letter writer can write about you in a detailed and positive manner is if they know you really well. Thus, it is critical that you develop a meaningful professional relationship with each letter writer. The kind of letter you need is not going to be written by a faculty member who you had in class, but never talked to. But, if you worked in the lab of a faculty member or you talked to your Professor about class topics on multiple occasions, you are much more likely to secure a meaningful letter.

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Who should you ask?

Keep in mind that you usually need three letter writers, and three really means three. That is, it is very important that you are 100% sure that when someone agrees to write a letter that they actually write the letter. It is a real negative when your application is missing letters. Decision makers will wonder why someone you listed to write a letter would not send it in.

For those specifically applying to graduate or professional school, please note:

  • It is very odd (and will be frowned upon) if you do not have at least one letter from a faculty member in your major.
  • You should try to get at least a letter from at least one faculty member who is a regular-title series (tenured and does both teaching and research). These faculty are perceived as more representative of faculty in your major, and more highly regarded by decision makers. If you can secure a strong letter from a “big name” faculty members, that can be a real plus.
  • You can include letters from individuals who are not faculty (religious leader, employer, coach, etc.), but you should view these letters as secondary—that is how these letters will be viewed by decision makers.

How do you ask for a letter of recommendation?

Get your head together about this, because the way you ask for a letter often determines whether you get the letter or not. Here are some general rules I think you should follow:

  • I think it is better to ask for a letter in person, but I understand that an email may be more efficient. The latter is especially true if it is difficult to actually make personal contact with a busy potential letter writer. It is likely your initial contact will lead to the potential letter writer asking for your resume and to schedule a meeting to discuss specifics of your application(s) (e.g., what you are applying for). Always remember that the person is under no obligation to write you a letter. They may be too busy or feel they do not know you well enough to write a letter. Be prepared for a “No” answer, and understand that if he or she agrees, they are doing you a major favor!
  • I was taught that you should ask for a letter by saying “Are you able to write me a positive letter of recommendation?” The reason for the “positive” is to protect yourself. It makes clear that if the person agrees to write a letter, they also agree to write a letter that is going to work in your favor. In addition, by asking this way, you allow a potential letter writer who may have something negative to say about you to decline.

woman typingShould you waive your write to see a letter of recommendation?

I feel you should always waive your right to see your letter–it works to your advantage. Some potential letter writers will not write a letter if they know you can see the letter. In addition, if you do not waive your right some admissions committee members may feel that your letter was not truthful. That is, they may feel that because the letter writer knew you could see the letter, they left out something negative. 

When should you ask for letters?

Better to ask too early than too late. My general rule is that you should ask for a letter of recommendation about a month before a due date. This gives the letter writer plenty of time to talk to you and to actually write the letter. Just so you know, the letter writer does more than write a letter. Almost all letters are submitted online as part of a longer form. This form includes a variety of questions that the letter writer must answer about you, including questions about your personality, work habits, and experiences.

What do you do after the letter is written?

I strongly believe that you need to thank your letter writers. I am not talking about a quick thank you when you leave their office. I feel you should show your appreciation for your letter writer’s time and energy by sending them a real hand-written thank you note. I know it’s probably been a long time since you wrote anything other than an email message, but I feel the effort on the part of your letter writers requires more substantial recognition. Let me add that you should inform your letter writers of the outcome of your application(s). These letter writers helped you because they believe in you, and want to know how everything turned out.

Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

 

Study Abroad: A Student’s Viewpoint

College students often dream of studying abroad and how it’ll be the “experience of a lifetime”. More often than not, when you ask a friend how their time was abroad, they’ll reply with a short sentence or two, which ends up focusing around an enthusiastic “Fantastic!”. There has to be a more descriptive answer than that, right? What happens that leaves such an impact on participants? I believe the majority of students completely fail to put influential experiences into words.

My name is Josh Benner and I lived Mitaka City on the western edge of Tokyo, Japan during the Summer 2018 semester. If you ask me how my trip abroad was, I would respond by saying that it was one of the most rewarding, exciting, stressful 7 weeks of my life. In this post, I hope to holistically approach different aspects of living abroad and how they have helped me develop as a person, student and professional.

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What was the first week like?

The first week living abroad was a whirlwind of emotions. I stepped off the plane and was instantly bombarded with a culture so incredibly different than my own. I had to take many short breaks throughout the week to process everything around me. The biggest challenge of my trip was communicating and figuring out where I needed to go. I have never been too confident in my Japanese skills, so I had to overcome my anxiety of using a foreign language to even leave the airport. Surviving this first week made me feel like all of the social fears at home were nothing in comparison. In this first week, I had to figure out how to use a foreign train system, ask for directions an obscene number of times, order food, check out at convenient stores, and hold conversations with people in a language that I was not comfortable with. In this short time, I had overcome so many challenges that doing anything in the US seemed easier in comparison.

What was the scariest part about going abroad for you and how did you overcome those fears?

            I had so many fears about going abroad: the trip there, navigating, culture-shock, etc. In case you weren’t aware, EVERYONE has fears about studying abroad when it comes down to it. Who wouldn’t be at least the slightest bit nervous about living somewhere completely new?! I learned that I couldn’t let this fear prevent me from making this summer the experience of a lifetime. I had a metaphorical tattoo on my forehead that said “no regrets” in a sense. I got to the point eventually where I enjoyed putting myself in uncomfortable situations, simply because I knew I would grow as a result. Studying abroad is the perfect time for you to face your fears. In life at home, we often avoid uncomfortable situations and our insecurities and anxieties remain, because we can simply walk the other direction. But while studying abroad, you may be forced to deal with these things, but the rewards are incredible. For someone as shy as I am, I was able to grow exponentially. I still reap the benefits now, months after returning.

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How did you handle classes while abroad?

One skill I feel like I truly mastered was time management. My goal was to make sure that I visited all the places I wanted, while still excelling in my courses. I had classes 3.5 hours a day, 5 days a week, all in Japanese. Classes and homework kept me busy, but I forced myself to make time to take the bus to the station for dinner with friends, or to the next town over to shop for a bit. Studying abroad is by no means a vacation. You’ll be tired, busy, and frankly a little sweaty, but the joy and excitement of simply living abroad and experiencing all there is to do will make the time and effort very much worth it.

In short, studying abroad is a time of rapid growth, as well as emotion highs and lows. If you have the opportunity about studying abroad or are still on the fence about whether you want to make the effort, know that you will hands-down have the time of your life and will benefit from the experience for years to come.

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.