Lessons from College

Written by: Lisa A. Goldstein

The college process has begun, only this time I’m on the other side. Looking at colleges with my daughter – a high school junior – has made me nostalgic. I envy her; today’s college experience is nothing like it was decades ago – which is a good thing!

Even though I started college soon after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, I learned some lessons that remain relevant.

Think carefully about size and location

As a shy high schooler, I wanted a small liberal arts school where I wouldn’t be a number. I thought this would make it easier on me because of my deafness. I was too focused on this and not open or aware of other options, like a small program or college within a big school. I also should have explored the location more. Sometimes being in or near a large city can mean more in the way of accommodations as well as social activities. It also means greater access to audiologists. If a small town only has one, and that person isn’t good, you’re out of luck. I went the opposite route for graduate school: I picked a small school in a large university that happened to be in and near big cities.

Look a gift horse in the mouth

It was suggested that I be placed in a particular dorm because the lobby had a large TV with captions. The school thought this would be a popular gathering place and easier for me. In theory, this sounded good, but I should have pushed a bit more. This dorm was on the “party” side of campus, whereas the other side of campus would have been a better fit. A TV shouldn’t have been the deciding factor. And guess what? I never once used it.

Don’t miss out

During my undergraduate education, I had note takers in my classes paid for my state’s vocational education services office. This was before real-time captioning (CART) existed. If I wanted accommodations for lectures or any other events on campus, I would have had to pay for it myself. I missed out on a lot.

As a result, I was determined that my graduate school experience not be the same. Granted, I was paying for it myself and didn’t want my money to go to waste (sorry, Mom and Dad!). But I was older and choosing to return to school to learn. I learned to speak up and ask for what I needed to get the most out of my experience.

Find a good advisor

When it was time to pick my advisor, I kind of flailed about and picked one of my English professors. I should have done more research and found an advisor who would have been a true ally, someone who would ensure that I had all the necessary information. Let’s face it, being deaf means that we don’t hear everything. I spent the spring semester of my junior year abroad, and came back to discover that I had to write a thesis in order to graduate with honors. By the time I realized this, it was too late. No one thought to tell me, including my advisor, who I expected to have my back. If the school assigns an advisor, make sure it’s a good fit and exercise your rights if it’s not.

Look for red flags

I’ll never forget one graduate school I visited. I walked into my meeting with the Disability Resource Center to find a surprising communication barrier. The person in charge was deaf, but he signed and I didn’t. Was this a sign for how life would be there? I ended up not liking other things about the school anyway.

Pay attention to what schools offer in terms of access. Is there a Disability Office? How visible is it? A woman I know from one at a large university was like a mother to all her students. It was obvious she’d fight tooth and nail for them. In contrast, the Disability Office at another large university ended up in a lawsuit for not providing accommodations to all students.

Put yourself first

By the time I was in graduate school, I was able to benefit from CART. The first semester of journalism school meant taking a “boot-camp” class. I had the most difficult and exacting professor. The captioner assigned to me was new, so her dictionary was slim. This meant more work for me, as I had to decipher a lot of the captions. I felt bad for her and wanted to help build up her dictionary, but it was affecting my education. I finally requested someone else the following semester, but shouldn’t have waited that long.

Don’t expect perfection

College means leaving behind your comfort zone and the support system you’ve relied on, and truly being your own advocate. Don’t be afraid to ask for things; others won’t know what you need until you educate them. Yes, college is about education, but it’s a two-way street.

There will be obstacles and frustrations, but there will also be joy. It helps if you’re grounded in reality and don’t expect everything to be perfect. Case in point: The keynote speaker at my j-school graduation was Ira Glass. I hadn’t even heard of him, because he’s a public radio personality. Not that I expected the school to keep me in mind when considering speakers, but I was disappointed that it wasn’t someone more inclusive. My graduation included one final lesson: Life isn’t always fair.

Here’s another: Be assertive, not aggressive. There’s a difference, and knowing it will take you far in life. Good luck with your college search! Maybe I’ll see you on the next college tour.


To learn more about self-advocacy, visit AG Bell’s website.


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