My college campus loves that word. Lots of college campuses love that word. It makes sense to me why. I mean, if college, colleges in the world, the idea of college itself, has historically marginalized many groups of people, and “college” wants to educate more people and diversify in order to make more money, then accessibility has to be talked about. Are colleges accessible to different races and ethnicities? To people whose families don’t make high incomes? To people with different religious backgrounds? To people with different sexual orientations? To people who don’t identify with their assigned sex/gender? To people with disabilities, whether easily seen to the naked eye or not, that make navigating campuses a difficulty?
I wonder about that all the time, because conversations about accessibility tend to take on a sort of “consumer” framework. What I mean by that is, when people talk about accessibility, sometimes it’s about evening out the playing field so that everyone has the ability to create knowledge. Other times it’s about having a right to the idea of “college” that a student has purchased or bought into. And I think that both sides are valid, but I wonder if there’s a disconnect between both sides. If students are more concerned about getting their money’s worth than getting an education, or vice-versa. And I wonder how that affects a student’s day-to-day life on a campus.
This is where I come in. Last fall, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. That’s not an uncommon diagnosis in this day and age on college campuses. There are still stigmas around having mental illness, something I was fully aware of when I went to my emergency drop-in hours and had a breakdown in front of my therapist, but I decided that finding ways to immediately feel better was going to be my priority over dealing with potential societal shaming.
So, I decided to be extremely “proactive.” So many of my peers were dealing with issues that could easily be diagnosed as mental illness. And I constantly heard their complaints about how no one at the school cared about them, or would listen to them, or take them seriously. I found myself having issues with one of my professors when I came to class slightly late, and he made an offhand comment about how I need to be on time that I did not take well. For me, that moment led to a recognition of power dynamics that I was not in control of. I might try to tell my professors about the issues I’m having, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll do anything about it. One of my closest friends, who is intensely private, finally took the courage to admit to a professor that they were dealing with medical issues and that they did not feel as if they would be able to go to class to take a test and wanted to reschedule. The response: “Oh, it’s probably just stress. Come to class tomorrow to take the test.”
I was not gonna play these games. I have been in rooms with advisors and professors and faculty who bemoan the state of their students, wondering why everyone seems to be so ill. And they correctly diagnose the use of social media to disseminate horrific images and videos, as well as the struggles of being a young adult and “finding one’s self” in this day and age. But when I was in my more depressive state, I was bewildered by what seemed like a lack of self-awareness on their end. I wanted to say “Well, you’re the problem as well. You assign entire books to read between a Tuesday and Thursday class, and then “throw shade” at students when they don’t live up to your expectations. What type of bullshit is this?” My Bonner Scholar supervisor can attest to the amount of times I had cried in her office, wondering why I seemed to be in an environment in which no one seemed to care that they were all causing each other pain. This is all to say that I was not going to get caught up in that cycle.
That meant that I went to higher-ups in the administration. I talked to my class dean, and I worked out with him when I was going to see my therapist and my psychiatrist, and how I would work through figuring out my schedule, all of those things. But when he asked me what I wanted from him, the first thing I said was, “I want an email from you sent to all of my professors. You can tell them anything you want about me, you can tell them that I’m suicidal, you can tell them how long this has been going on, but I need it to come from you.” In my mind, after seeing what happened to my friend, I knew that I needed someone whose authority would not easily be questioned, because after the incident I had with the professor in class, I knew that I had no authority.
The issue I find with this type of thinking is that it creates such a “me against the world” mentality. I don’t trust people anymore, especially at Oberlin, because when I needed them most, I felt attacked by them. But at the same time, in order to get through college and get the degree and move on with my life to do the things I wanted to do, I needed the help of the same people that I did not trust. I needed them for recommendations, I needed to take their classes so I can have an awesome transcript. I needed them so I could have a better future, but I did not trust them to take care of me in the present.
My class dean took care of it. Some of my professors talked to me about what I was going through, commending me for being so proactive. Many more didn’t say anything. That was weird to me, even if it was to be expected. At a place like Oberlin that put so much emphasis on “community” and “helping each other out,” why were people not talking to me about what I was going through? Then again, why did I expect them to?
Cut to the end of last semester. I decided to try to receive accommodations from the Office of Disability Services. I spoke with the head of the office, and we discussed what accommodations would look like in order to make courses more “accessible.” For some people, accommodations involved having someone be a notetaker for them (a role I had served for someone my 1st year). It could also mean extended time during finals, or being allowed to be in a different room during finals. For me, because I seemed to have a handle on my academics, I was looking for accommodations that would serve as a net in case I fell. So, I would have wanted a change in the attendance policy if I were to take a class that had a maximum amount of absences you could have before you failed. So, instead of 3 for a class, maybe it would be 5. But when the head of the office looked at my schedule, she noted that some of the classes were “active participation classes.” What that meant was that due to the nature of the classes, it literally would not serve me to miss a single class. Unlike some classes that might be more reading based in which I could probably just read on my own outside of class, I was taking performing arts classes in which the class was constantly devising work that needed to be rehearsed. So I couldn’t get a change in the attendance policy for those courses.
I left wondering about accessibility in a way I had never thought of it before. Up until then, I was so proud of myself for being so “proactive.” I went to all of the right people, I started my medication, I continued going to therapy, etc. I felt that unlike what many of my peers felt, the resources were accessible for my needs. I was so inspired to not end up like my peers that dropped out or harmed themselves that I worked hard to make sure I was receiving all of the care I thought I deserved. Yes, receiving that care would allow me to be a better student, but also I thought that since my Oberlin degree would be worth around a quarter of a million dollars, I had a right to not have to deal with bullshit in regards to navigating my campus.
But I left that meeting with Disability Services, and I realized that because of the path I took for my academics, there was a limit to the assistance I could receive. So, if I wanted to live in a world in which I could change my courses to better suit me, I better not take the courses I wanted to take/had to take for my major. For my major in Performance Studies, I had taken a lot of classes with an emphasis on physical performance. That is not the only type of performance that I focus on, but it has happened to be the primary focus of the courses I have taken. And for most of them, if I had missed more than a few days, I would have failed them. Should I have not declared that major then? Should I have switched to something else? To me, it’s like I’m being told that my decision is between “taking care of myself” and “going to college to do what I want” (which I believe can be another form of taking care of yourself). I guess deciding to have both is what “accessibility” is all about, but sometimes the choices you have to make are extremely contradictory.
I’m happy to say that I feel better than I have in years. I told my therapist several months ago that I was gonna do a summer research program at the University of Chicago, and that the change in environment would probably make me feel better. And I was right. But I wonder if part of why it has made me feel better is because I haven’t had to make contradictory choices between taking care of myself, being a college student and doing what I want to do. So, not to say that UChicago is the most accessible college/university, but maybe it was just more accessible for me.