He wanted to interview me, but then I learned about him…

I get many inquiries from reporters who want my take on an issue. Recently, I received an unusual query. It was from a student at Orange County Community College (OCCC) in Newburgh, NY who writes for the campus paper.

The student, Samir Thomas, sent me some of his articles from the Community College Campus News and asked for my answers to two questions for a series he’s writing to help special education students adjust to college. What Samir asked me and what he wrote were so moving that I wanted to share it.

First, let me tell you a little about this remarkable student.

Samir lives with his mom and brother in Newburgh.  When he and his younger brother were very young, they ingested lead-based paint chips from the walls of their old apartment in the Bronx. Lead poisoning, which can result short- and long-term learning difficulties and damage a developing brain, was the result. 

From kindergarten through 12th grade, Samir and his brother were in special education in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District. Last August, Samir graduated from high school. He enrolled in community college through TRIO, the federal outreach programs that assist students who are low-income or have special needs.

Those programs are a lifeline—but at this moment they’re in danger.  They would suffer under the budget-cutting agenda of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, a dangerous duo that wants to take an ax to funding for public schools and higher education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which helps level the educational playing field but has never been fully funded by Congress, is at risk, as are many other programs designed to help vulnerable K-12 and college students. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Take a minute to send an email to DeVos and tell her how harmful her plans are.

Samir gives me even more motivation to fight for all our students—so that each and every one of them has the resources and support to discover their passions, follow their hearts, and live out their dreams.

Samir’s goal is to graduate with an associate’s degree and then attend a four-year college to study engineering science. And he’s well on his way. In his articles, he shares tips and lessons learned from his first year at OCCC. Here are a few:

  • “Thinking about going to college made me extremely nervous. I didn’t believe I would understand what my teachers, a.k.a. professors, said, or the classwork. I had a fear of the big words they would use or not knowing where to go for help. I also thought everyone in the classroom would be smarter than me and I would stand out as if I had a big ‘Special Ed’ sign on my forehead.”
  • “Just so you will know, ‘SYLLABUS’ is a list of everything: homework, classwork, quiz, and tests that will be given during each semester, including the dates they are due…The first time I read my first syllabus, I felt totally independent, like an adult! LOL…That’s when I knew I was going to be treated as an adult; something I had wanted my entire life, then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, do I really want this?’ YEAH!”
  • “In college, you must allow yourself two to four hours of study time for every credit you are taking. This may seem difficult or impossible if you have to go to work, however, the passing grades you may receive on your homework, test scores, and quizzes are well worth the effort…I’m sharing this because I don’t want you to be embarrassed about not knowing something and needing a lot of help to ‘get it.’”

Samir is full of praise for those who are helping him “overcome many of the psychological, mental, and emotional difficulties” he faces, especially the TRIO and Equal Opportunity Program staff members and financial aid counselors and his professors.  I agree with Samir—they are outstanding.

Samir Thomas, I wish you all the best. Here are my answers to your great questions.

If you were talking to a group of special needs elementary, middle school, high school students, parents, and teachers, what would be your message of expectancy and motivation to achieve a college education?

I’d start by saying this: You are awesome. You are students with disabilities, not “disabled students.” The whole of who you are, your experience as a human being, your personality, likes and dislikes, talents and challenges, cannot be boiled down to a diagnosis code.

You have a right to a quality public education that develops your potential, independence, and character. Never, ever forget that.  Therefore, you have the right to request, advocate for, and use every accommodation you need to be able to succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.

Please don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for what you need, and if you don’t get it the first time, ask again and keep asking. Remember that you are your own best advocate.

This will be different from the way things worked in K-12, where your teachers and parents or guardians made the decisions while you watched and listened from the sidelines. It might feel like a difficult transition. But it’s one of many transitions we all have to make as we go from one phase to the next.

Remember that we need the special gifts you have; you offer something no one else can bring to the table. Whenever you’re feeling unsure of yourself, try hard to focus on that.

But as you already know: Every day isn’t going to be fantastic. Being in college doesn’t change that fact of life! You can have all the support in the world, you can have the best circumstances there are…and you’ll still have days when you want to hide under the covers and be a little kid again. That’s OK. It happens to us all. Don’t give up on yourself. Take a breather. And come back at it again tomorrow.

 If you were talking to a group of college administrators and professors of special needs students, what would be your message to them?

First of all, thank you! Thank you for believing in students, for helping them figure out what they are passionate about and unlocking their potential. Your words and actions create the conditions for their success. You’re instilling in them the confidence they’ll need to overcome many challenges. That will have benefits not only in their own lives, but in the lives of others. It’s clear that what you do is not just your job; it’s your calling.

 As you know, there’s a strong link between academic achievement and students’ social and emotional development. The NEA’s work with the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, of which we are a partner,  reflects how important the connection is. Your work recognizes the interplay between these factors.

 Something in the world is going to change because of something you see in a student, something you do on a student’s behalf, or some seed you plant in a student’s mind. 

 But that truth doesn’t change this fact: What you do is hard! It can be frustrating. It can be exhausting to trudge through a bureaucratic maze day in, day out on a quest for what students need. People—sometimes even colleagues on your campus—won’t always appreciate what you do.

Correct what they don’t understand about your role and be a walking, talking billboard for the services you provide, because I believe they are among the most important in higher education. 

Like you do for your students, advocate for what you need and be fearless in protecting both your personal integrity and your profession’s integrity.  Be unabashedly proud of the doors you’re opening for students, believe in your power and in the value of what you do.

And know that NEA’s mission is to advocate for your work, provide you with resources and information to assist you, and connect you with other professionals across the nation with similar jobs.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t make one last pitch for anybody who’s reading this to speak out on behalf of our students. We need an education budget that doesn’t limit the aspirations of students like Samir Thomas or make it more difficult for us to do our jobs.

Please stand up to the Trump-DeVos agenda.  Email Betsy DeVos to tell her that resourced public schools and college campuses are the best way we can set all students off toward a great future. That’s one simple step we can take for Samir and for all the young people out there who are working hard to fulfill their dreams.  They can’t do it by themselves, and they shouldn’t have to.

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