We knew that the Counselor "knew his stuff" when he directed our son to sit across from his desk and politely motioned me to a chair off to the side in a corner of the room. He was absolutely right. College students need to function independently and it is a time for parents of students with disabilities to step back and let their offspring take the lead. This can be hard for parents of young adults who have needed extra support in earlier levels of school, and it does not mean that parents can't continue to be helpful in many ways. What it does mean is that colleges expect the student to understand their areas of difficulty, to advocate for their own needs, and to be responsible for their own academic lives. Had our son not wanted me present for the meeting, the Counselor would have been fine with that too.
Some of the highlights of the meeting that can be helpful for all students with learning and other disabilities:
- Ask about early registration -- which allows students with documented disabilities to register before any other students -- through your college's Office of Disability Services. Nassau Community offers this, as do many schools, and it can be a lifesaver for students trying to get into specific courses. Our son was way too late to take advantage of even regular registration deadlines and was closed out of several courses, but registration for the spring semester will be far easier if he takes advantage of the early registration this coming fall.
- Consider why your student is enrolled in college. Our son had been out of high school for several years and most recently worked as an aide in a special needs preschool. He wants to become a regular teacher and knows that he needs to obtain an education degree to reach his goal. "I can see that you are here because you want to be," noted the Counselor. "I can't tell you how many students come to my office and it is clear that the only reason they enroll in college is because their parents want them to. They don't know why they are here, have no sense of what is involved, and often are not successful because they don't really want to be in college."
- There are a wide range of services available for students with learning and other challenges, even in financially strapped community colleges like Nassau. But the key is making use of them. "What do you think I can do for a student who comes to me in November and tells me that he has missed several classes, hasn't done his homework, and has just failed his midterm exam?" asked the Counselor. "Nothing!" He urged our son to stop by early and often to report on his progress.
- It is important that a college student really understand why he needs accommodations and how a specific accommodation is going to help him succeed. Our son's disability documentation noted that he has dysgraphia -- difficulty with handwriting. He asked if he could be provided with copies of the class notes, where they were available. The Counselor asked him to explain why and pressed him when he simply said that they would be helpful. Only when he explained that it was hard for him to take notes and concentrate on a lecture at the same time did the Counselor say, "Yes, that's a reasonable accommodation for you."
- Educational records, such as disability documentation, are protected under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and our son was reminded that the forms he would be giving to his professors to obtain his academic accommodations would not mention anything about his disability. The Counselor stressed to him that he was under no obligation to offer any explanation to his professors, just to advise them that he was entitled to certain accommodations. That is correct, but it can be helpful for students who are comfortable discussing their disabilities to be somewhat more open with their professors, so that they can better understand what is going on with the students they teach.
One other note: after sending two older sons to college and graduate school, our visit to the Bursar's Office to pay for the upcoming semester reminded us how affordable community college can be compared to four year schools. We'll let you know how things go at Nassau, but from what we have seen and heard so far, we are looking forward to a successful academic journey.