By Darren Johnson
Thanks to a very hands-on disabilities program at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY, and a unique partnership with JetBlue Airlines, recent graduate Viviana Guzman is realizing her dream of being employed in the field she loves, finance.
Guzman, 31, has epilepsy and a facial muscular disorder, and came to the US in 2010 with her family from Bogota, Colombia, not knowing English well. After two years of intensive language study, she enrolled in LaGuardia’s accounting program and quickly excelled, being named to Delta Alpha Pi, a national honor society. She also was recently one of just 20 students accepted into a JetBlue mentorship program for students with disabilities.
“I have enjoyed the JetBlue program. They treated us with respect. It was good that they said, ‘We are not people with disabilities, we are people with different abilities,” Guzman noted, adding that moving to the US changed her outlook:
“I faced discrimination because of my disabilities in Colombia and lost two jobs there, so I’ve appreciated living in the United States. It’s a free country and there is no discrimination based on disability, nor age discrimination. People don’t think disabilities are a big deal here. You see people with the same conditions here, and doing the same work. There are better doctors here, too.”
A Hands-On Program
A professor urged her to meet with Jhony Nelson, LCC’s director of the office for students with disabilities, who quickly saw her potential.
He said: “We were proud to nominate Viviana for the program. She has always felt discrimination because people can see her disability. But she was a very strong accounting student and treasurer of the college honor society. When JetBlue interviewed her, she impressed them.”
“I enjoyed my time at LaGuardia Community College and was very involved in the Office for Students With Disabilities. I was allowed extra time for tests, and they motivated me to continue my dream to have a better life,” Guzman said.
“JetBlue takes students with disabilities under their wings and teaches them what it’s like to be a professional, in a professional environment,” Nelson added.
As for the work of his office, Nelson stated: “We help dispel myths for students with disabilities. For example, many believe that if they disclose their disabilities, people won’t hire them. But that’s not true. Many feel that if they disclose their disability they will be seen as lazy or as expecting preferential treatment, and that’s not true, either.
“We don’t look at it as a disability but a ‘diversity of ability.’ Having a disability is not a handicap. It is an issue, but one that can we worked around. We will advocate for students, and work with them to find alternative learning methods; for example, substituting a written paper with an oral presentation.”
The office aims to make the college experience accessible for all students with disabilities, and helps develop accommodations for students so that they can succeed. The office also advocates for students with professors, administrators and potential employers.
Nelson encourages students with disabilities to call, email or stop by their disabilities services office: “Don’t be afraid at all. The reason why they fear coming in is because they don’t know what services we have for them. … People who have a disability that isn’t visible should still come to us, too; own it, live with it; instead of suffering with it in silence.”
A Happy Ending
After the internship, Guzman has new confidence and sees herself as very employable.
“I feel better here. I feel more comfortable, and am grateful for the opportunities I have been provided. It can be difficult to find a job for me. It takes me a little more time to understand and memorize things. I want a better job and life, and that’s why I studied at LaGuardia Community College.
“I had mentorship from JetBlue’s finance department leader, and he showed me how they work in payroll. We learn that we can grow in the company to a high level because it’s a big company.
“The LaGuardia Office for Students with Disabilities has been extremely helpful in providing me with mentoring support and information,” added Guzman. “I’m grateful to Jhony, who reached out to me about JetBlue’s Disability Mentoring Day, knowing my interest in pursuing a career in airport operations. It was a huge opportunity for me to meet and network with airport professionals, and to learn about the field first-hand.”