In high school, Alex Lemus’ health teacher asked him why he never did his homework. She didn’t like his answer and told him, “I think it’s because you’re stupid.”
Between the ages of 13 and 16, Jennifer Hoffman survived three suicide attempts, including drinking bleach.
In kindergarten, a school psychiatrist labeled Jack Pontillo as “MR,” or mentally retarded.
In third grade, Emily Takacs often received zeros on assignments because of her dyslexia.
All four of these SUNY Ulster students have two things in common: They overcame a disability to succeed in college and they credit the federally-funded TRIO Student Support Services as a major factor in that success.
Right from the beginning Alex had a hard time paying attention and focusing in school.
At eight years-old his teacher recommended he see the school psychiatrist who suggested he may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which involves problems with authority.
Middle school was torture.
“I was picked on horribly,” he said. “Seventh grade, eighth grade, really picked on bad. It was atrocious. I’d get punched in the head and called ‘a faggot.’ I was singled out because I was different than those other kids so I was an easy target to be bullied.”
His high school years were full of “impulsive mistakes” such as stealing bus passes, fights and acting out in class, which often led to referrals and hours spent sitting in in-school suspension.
At 15 he was on countless anxiety medications.
“They put me on Zoloft, then they put me on Celexa, then they put me on Wellbutrin, then they put me on Strattera. None of them worked.”
Regardless of these disorders, his intelligence level was fairly high because he excelled in his computer video production class with grades in the 90s.
For Jennifer, major depression and anxiety started at age 12. This led to crying uncontrollably in school and cutting herself. (She once sliced herself in the face with a razorblade.) At 13 she had her first suicide attempt. By ninth grade she was admitted several times to Four Winds psychiatric hospital in Westchester where she spent most of the school year.
In a similar fashion to Alex, her intelligence level was high. In seventh grade she was in an accelerated math class and in ninth grade she was taking 10th grade classes.
For Jack, signs of his nervousness, anxiety and slight depression started around age four. He was in special education as early as pre-K. This was followed by special ed classes in the morning and then mainstream classes in the afternoon through second grade.
“Whenever I couldn’t understand something I would start to get upset. I used to cry a lot because I didn’t understand things. I would get mad easily.”
In seventh grade Jack had a devastating and life-changing incident. He had done his math homework incorrectly and the teacher held his paper up to the class and they all laughed.
“That actually made me give up on math in middle school which messed me over in high school,” he said.
He found himself in the slower-track math class for the next five years.
In third grade Emily was diagnosed with a “moderate-to-severe” case of dyslexia. This means her brain would move numbers, letters and words around when she’d read them. This resulted in little-to-no understanding of what she read or what she was doing. Additionally, her handwriting was illegible, even to herself.
After being diagnosed she was given intensive reading therapy. It didn’t work.
“In fourth grade they tried a slew of different things,” she said. This included speech therapy, a separate location for tests, the tests read to her and extra time for the tests. This carried out through high school.
In middle school she was put in a resource room with other special education students.
While all of these services helped a great deal, she was far from where she could and wanted to be.
At some point each of these students realized the only way he was going to beat his problem was by making at least one major change. In some cases the change was the direct opposite of what the system was promoting all along.
In Alex’s case, the answer was meditation, not medication. Contemplation and reflection did the job that prescriptions couldn’t.
Another change that happened from within was developing a relationship with his teachers on a personal level.
“Up until then it was just, ‘Here I am, this is the teacher who’s speaking at me, giving me something.’ I didn’t look at the teacher as an individual,” he said. “I started to form relationships with people and see that my teachers are full people. I can have a discussion with my teacher. If there’s something that I missed because I was distracted, I can ask, and I’m not going to be told I was stupid.”
Additionally, he found his passion in environmental studies, which is his major at SUNY Ulster.
“I just found my passion, and I grabbed it, and did everything I could to make it happen,” he said.
Jennifer’s story parallels Alex’s.
“From the time that I was 13 until about 17 years-old I was on medications constantly,” she said. “I can’t even list them all for you.”
At one point she was so overmedicated she was sleeping all the time, slurring her speech and had tremors in her hands.
At 17 she decided to wean herself off the medications and her mother took her to a homeopathic/naturopathic doctor because she had enough of traditional, medical doctors doing not much more than prescribing endless medications.
This alternative doctor suggested Jennifer get specific thyroid tests that the medical doctors weren’t using. The results indicated the crux her of her thyroid problem.
“My antibodies were out of whack,“ she said. Her numbers were extremely high when they needed to be much lower.
Part of the remedy for this was a change in diet. Jennifer had already become a vegetarian at age nine and then a vegan at age 12, on her own accord.
But it was going gluten free, soy free and goitrogen free that did the trick. (Goitogenic foods may create an unwanted growth on the thyroid gland.) Jennifer made this decision with the input of the alternative doctor.
Over time her antibodies numbers have dropped considerably. Jennifer believes the diet changes plus meditation and yoga have been major factors in keeping her problem in check, or at least close to it.
“Whenever I’m going to a guided-meditation or yoga class is when I feel the healthiest,” she said. “Those were the moments in the times when I was so depressed that I felt connected.”
“In fourth grade I had an epiphany,” said Jack. He had recently received his report card and thought, “These grades are going to affect me in the future.”
“So from then on out I tried to do better in school,” he said. By high school he was taking the usual sciences classes (including physics) and did quite well in them.
Emily came to the conclusion at 15 that if she wanted “to get anywhere in life” she needed to be a “self advocate” by speaking up and saying what she actually needs as opposed to teachers telling her what she needs.
She began getting these things, such as access to a word processor so everyone could read what she wrote. It seems no one had thought of this solution before, or if someone did, it was never presented because “the district has to pay out for it.”
She also realized she needed to put in the hours of studying necessary to for good grades.
“You set your mind to something and you tell yourself no matter how hard it is, you’re going to do it.”
After she spoke up and applied herself those zeros on assignments turned into A’s and B’s.
Help from TRIO
While the self-induced changes were a gigantic step forward, these students still need help from others. This help comes in the form of TRIO Support Services, which is provided to colleges throughout the country through the US Department of Education.
In its mission statement, TRIO says it’s there “to provide support toward completion of a post-secondary education to individuals who are traditionally under-represented because of income, family education or disability.”
One is also eligible to participate if he or she is a first-generation college student.
TRIO began 50 years ago as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society.” This was a set of programs with the goal to eliminate poverty and racial injustice in the United States. Three of these programs addressed education and were passed through the Higher Education Act of 1965. They eventually became known as TRIO.
Jennifer is a 20 year-old, second-year, visual and fine arts major at SUNY Ulster. While she’s well on the road to recovery, she’s not completely out of the woods. On occasion she has an emotional breakdown and it can (and does) happen at school. In her two years at SUNY Ulster she’s had about 10.
“TRIO helps me get through it,” she said.
Jennifer has two counselors at SUNY Ulster, Deb Heppner and Stephanie Kroon, although if they’re not available, she can speak to any counselor in the Student Support Services office.
“They’re the ones that give me the support when I’m crying,” she said. She credits them as “the only reason“ she’s “able to even go to college.”
SUNY Ulster is a two-year school and should Jennifer want to attend a four-year college to complete her Bachelors, such as School of Visual Arts in New York City, she would find the lack of TRIO there a “huge” problem. Huge enough where attending such a school may not be an option.
“I’m not going to be as lucky in the future, and I realize that,” she said.
Jack calls the TRIO office a “safe zone” where he can come in and do his work and his counselor, Stephanie, helps him get over any nervousness he may be feeling on a given day.
While at SUNY Ulster, Emily met with TRIO counselor Kristin Flynn every two weeks to work out a plan.
“It was nice to have someone to talk to who knew about my problem and knew how to help me with it,” she said. “It’s easy to be honest with her because she doesn’t judge.”
“They do it all here,” said Alex. “They have their own scholarship foundation for kids like us. Last semester I got a $1400 scholarship, and I’m in the running again.”
Ashley (whose last name is withheld by request) is 25 year-old, recent graduate of Hofstra University on Long Island. She has cerebral palsy.
“It’s a neurologically-based disability that affects my movement and balance,” she said. “I need to use a walker to ambulate and sometimes a wheelchair for longer distances. CP basically affects any of my physical activities, especially ones that require standing and everyday tasks.”
While there is no TRIO program at Hofstra, there is a Student Services with Disabilities office that will make arrangements for students with special needs.
“If I had classes back to back, I would get the locations of the classes moved either to the same building or as close together as possible so I wouldn’t have to walk far in a short period of time to get from one class to another,” said Ashley.
“I also got extended time for some exams that were particularly long and/or required rigorous writing because my hands and back/trunk muscles would get fatigued and I would have the option of taking a break. I also had the use of a computer for essay exams.”
Alex has a GPA of 3.4. He’s the vice president of the Environmental Club at SUNY Ulster. He’s part of the Environmental Advisory Council at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the Buddhist monastery in Woodstock where he practices. He’s engaged and has a 19 month-old daughter.
Jennifer hasn’t self-mutilated since 2010. The desire to commit suicide “has dwindled down to the strength of a weak flame.“ On her latest report card she received three A’s and a B.
Jack‘s current GPA is 3.31. He’s been accepted to SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and will start classes in the fall. (He’s an environmental studies major as well and is friends with Alex.)
After making the Dean’s List, Emily graduated from SUNY Ulster in the fall of 2014 and is now a junior at SUNY New Paltz as a special education major with a concentration in geology. This will enable her to become an Earth science teacher.
Her decision to become a special ed teacher is a direct result of her own disability.
“I think being special ed and being raised in the special ed system you understand there are a lot of flaws,” she said.
“The systems aren’t created by people who have these needs; they’re created by politicians and people with Ph.D.’s in the field. They’re not created by people with special ed needs. I think that that needs to change.”
Ashley has a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in early childhood special education. She has two New York State teaching certificates, one for general education, birth through sixth grade and one for teaching students with disabilities, also birth through sixth grade.
As does Emily, Ashley believes special ed students make better special ed teachers.
“I believe my disability to be a strength, especially as a special educator, because I have a very personal perspective on what it’s like to be different in school,” she said. “I think I can be a positive role model not only on students with special needs but also on parents who might be hesitant to help their children explore his or her full potentials.”
She’s currently a substitute teacher at four school districts on Long Island.
Although TRIO has been around for 50 years, it’s not as permanent as it may seem. Every five years a college needs to reapply for its grant. SUNY Ulster submitted its application this past February.
“The Department of Education is anticipating around 1600 applications and they can award about 1000 programs,“ said Todd Zeff, director of the disabilities program at SUNY Ulster.
If they say no, the department disappears.
Additionally, the federal government allows a maximum of 100 students per year to be serviced through a school’s program.
“This college has over 200 students with disabilities,” said Todd. “So once we fill up our roster with students with disabilities, we will then put them on our waiting list and see if the other TRIO program can take them.”
Ten years ago it’s unlikely anyone would have foreseen these five students achieving what they have thus far. While their future achievements may come a little easier than previous ones, they still possess their special needs.
Ashley has been on 15 to 20 job interviews but has yet to get hired. She’s afraid when prospective employers see her enter with a walker, this ends her chances on the spot.
As Emily says about her dyslexia, “I’m 20 years-old and I still cry about it.”