Advancing Opportunities’ College Student Empowerment Council (CSEC) held its inaugural meeting on Wednesday, March 8th. The Council is currently led by Co-chairs Momin Rafi and Jordan Westwood and comprised of college students.

CSEC is a discussion group for students with disabilities who have information to share about the challenges they face and strategies for success. The ultimate goal is to empower college students with disabilities to become self-advocates with strong leadership skills.

“One of the most powerful tools for increasing achievement is student voice and recognition,” said Linda Soltes, program manager of the Student Success Center. “CSEC will inform best practices and the development of high quality service.”

The first meeting’s central topic was disclosure—should students in college disclose their disability? Why or why not? How does one go about disclosure?

The general consensus was that, although disclosing can be tough, it is usually a net positive on a student’s overall college experience. The Council members each shared their personal experience with disclosure and the results.

“Up until college, I did not disclose my disability because I thought I was doing fine on my own and that I didn’t need accommodations,” said Theresa Kochenash, junior at Stockton University. “Once I disclosed and received accommodations, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I found that my grades improved, my overall anxiety was lowered, and I wondered why I didn’t disclose earlier.”

Something to note if one is considering disclosing: it’s important to consult with one’s psychiatrist or learning psychologist to receive the proper paperwork and get a good understanding of what accommodations will be necessary. Next, once documentation is obtained, one should contact their school’s Office of Disabilities and ask for accommodation letters. Once those letters are given, it’s recommended that students email their professors before the semester starts to set up a meeting to discuss necessary accommodations.

However, many students feel that there is a strong stigma surrounding mental health issues, disabilities, and identifying as someone with either.

“The process can be long and the accommodations don’t always solve all the issues,” said Makenzie Tiernan, freshman at Mercer County Community College. “Disclosing something that you struggle with is a very vulnerable, sometimes uncomfortable experience. It’s not something to be ashamed of, but in today’s world there’s a stigma involved with disabilities, mental health problems, and needing help. It’s hard to admit that you need assistance, and it can feel like some portion of independence is taken from you. All in all, others’ opinions don’t matter, being as successful as possible is what matters.”

“While disclosure worked fine for me, I really can’t provide a blanket statement that speaks for everyone. I’m just one person,” said Vincent Giacalone, senior at The College of New Jersey. “It may not be comfortable to do for someone that isn’t ready to be open about what their disability is. Unfortunately, a large stigma exists surrounding learning disabilities, and some people cope by choosing not to reveal which disability they have.”

The Council plans to meet again towards the end of March to discuss stigma surrounding mental health issues and disabilities, and how that stigma can be reduced and even eliminated.

If you’d like to join or contribute to CSEC, you can reach out to Momin Rafi at mrafi@advopps.org or Jordan Westwood at west.jordan10@gmail.com.