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A Non-Traditional Student Trustee is Making A College Education More Accessible For All

Dawn Penson sworn in at Onondaga Community College

With over 1.4 million students across SUNY System, each campus has its own diverse community of individuals it serves, and by extension, different needs and goals for growth and improvement. The leadership that helps steer these goals is localized at the community college level. Community colleges each have their own Board of Trustees, and each institution’s Board of Trustees has a Student Trustee within its ranks to ensure the student body is represented and that their voices are heard. These students are key to bringing the student voice into college operations and strategic planning.

At Onondaga Community College (OCC), Student Trustee Dawn Penson was recently sworn in by the college’s board in October, and she is looking forward to helping shape the campus’s policies moving forward, with a particular focus on disability, accessibility, and accommodations.

As a sophomore majoring in human services, Dawn champions accessibility services for students due to her own life experiences. Dawn shared that she recently lost her vision in her 30s, right around the time she decided she wanted to go back to school. The decision was not an easy one for her because she “hated school growing up” and was scared about how she would be able to handle being a student who is completely blind and has hearing loss. Thankfully, Dawn was able to confide in her counselor from the New York State Commission for the Blind about her worries, and she suggested Dawn tour OCC and the Office of Accessibility Resources so she could become more familiarized with the campus.

During her first visit to OCC, Dawn met Nancy Carr and Daneen Brooks from the Office of Accessibility Resources, who “made her feel welcomed [and] put her mind at ease about seeking a degree.” After their first meeting, Dawn felt her worries dissipate and was ready to enroll, noting that Nancy and Daneen helped her recognize her strengths and how she would excel in human services. On her own time, Dawn researched the campus and its professors and immediately knew that OCC would provide an environment where she could thrive.

Yet, the journey that led Dawn to OCC was filled with roadblocks and moments where she wasn’t sure if she would succeed. She reflects on the long road it has taken to become a fully matriculated student at the college. “When I tried to enroll at OCC, I realized my high school diploma [from back in Texas] was a scam… [I] had to start all over again and earn my GED.” On the surface, this may seem like a simple step, but Dawn notes that the GED, which is now the TASC, was not fully accessible for someone who is deep blind and has hearing issues. Ever determined, Dawn enrolled at OCC as a full-time, non-matriculated student and waited until the TASC was accessible for her to take. Once the TASC was revamped, Dawn was the first completely blind person in New York State to take and pass the exam. Now, she could become a matriculated student, and her experiences with the TASC would ultimately shape her path at OCC.

Since she played a vital role on a team that helped make the TASC accessible for other blind and visually impaired students, Dawn realized that she wanted to focus on disability advocacy by influencing policy and legislation. Dawn has been able to explore her passions at OCC through a 100-hour internship with the Office of Accessibility Resources, the same office that helped ease her concerns on her first campus visit. She has also been busy gaining experience through various campus groups: OCC’s Toast Masters Chapter, Phi Theta Kappa, Electronics and Communications Access Committee, and the campus’s Student Government Association. She also has excelled academically at OCC, as witnessed by her 4.0 grade point average and induction into the Phi Theta Kappa honor society this semester.

Clearly, Dawn is dedicated to bettering herself and her campus, and has a propensity for holding leadership roles, so, it comes as no surprise that she was interested in becoming the Student Trustee for OCC’s Board of Trustees. As far as what directly inspired her to throw her hat into the ring, she recognized her ability to help lead, and Dawn especially wanted to foster collaboration between the OCC Board, faculty, and students. She goes on to say, “The OCC Board of Trustees felt like a perfect fit where I can offer insight into disability, accessibility, and accommodations, and being a seasoned nontraditional student with children of my own, I wanted to [share] my voice [with] the board in [the] hopes of heling Onondaga Community College become even more fabulous in the future.”

Dawn is already making her voice heard through her goals and initiatives she’d like to accomplish as Student Trustee. For starters, she would like to have Universal Design, which involves ensuring all individuals can access spaces and resources regardless of their age, size, or disability, implemented in every degree program, classroom, assignment, and online resource throughout the campus. Her other goals include making all digital and electronics media fully and easily accessible for those with disabilities, creating a “Food To Go” application where individuals on campus can have food delivered to them from the Gordon Cafeteria, and to have a space on campus for older children so parent students do not have to choose between going to class or staying at home with their kids.

Through these goals, Dawn is hoping to make college education more accessible for all, especially students with disabilities and non-traditional and parent students, and she has some great advice for non-traditional students wanting to attend college who may be hesitant. Dawn’s main messages? Own your education and take things one day at a time.

“You will not regret it! There is no better feeling than knowing that you will have a degree and a lasting career in your future. The amount of knowledge gained and the people you will meet will help you better understand yourself as a person and what you want to do in the future. Homework and finals can be tough at times, and balancing school and your family can be challenging, but if you take one day at a time, one class at a time, and one semester at a time, before you even realize it, you will be walking [across] the stage triumphantly. You have the power over your own success and happiness, so embrace it. Your children will be proud of what you have accomplished, and this will help them do better in their future. Your degree is waiting for you. Own it!”

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Written by Julie Maio

Julie is the assistant director for student mental health and wellness for SUNY System Administration.

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