Getting off to a good start is important for college freshmen. For students with disabilities, it is even more important.
The Office of Disability Support Services (DSS) at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke offered a special orientation session for incoming students with disabilities August 18-19, two days before other students began arriving.
It was the first orientation of its kind for UNCP, and it is pilot project for North Carolina as well, DSS Director Mary Helen Walker said. The mission was to teach students survival skills prior to entering the classroom.
"This is a first and the first of many to come," Walker said. "College is such a different experience from high school that a transition of this type may be critical."
"Students who attend specialized pre-orientations have a better graduation rate, research indicates, and retention is increased and this is what it is about in higher education," Walker said. "Making a smooth and successful transitions is the primary goal of pre-orientation programs."
Parents attended the first day, and the special orientation was greeted enthusiastically.
"If we had moved in with the other freshmen, the crowd and the anxiety would be too much," said Mitzie Fisk, who accompanied her son. "This made it personal."
Fisk said the opportunity to meet the DSS staff and learn what they have to offer was also important.
"I love this program, and I did not know it existed in college," Fisk said. "They walked us through everything."
There were sessions on assistive technology, counseling services and programs for students with disabilities. The new freshmen were exposed to local culture at the Baptist Student Union, where they ate dinner and played "Survivor," which was the theme for the two-day program. Delta Sigma Omicron, UNCP's Disabled Student Organization, sponsored breakfast on day two.
Students also met with veteran biology Professor Dr. Andy Ash to discuss classroom expectations.
"I have a lot of personal experience with learning disabilities and education," Dr. Ash said. "Your problem makes it difficult to get an education, but you're job is to deal with it."
Dr. Ash told the students that they must set graduation as a goal, and not allow anything to get in the way. He said they would get help along the way.
"There is a lot of sincere conviction here at this university that you matter, and you deserve an education, " he said. "We are not handing out degrees here. We will help you, but you will work for it."
There was also advice that should be heeded by all college freshmen and their parents. Some of the advice was practical and some motivational.
"Parents, if you haven't already, you need to have a talk about laundry," Walker said. "We don't have maid service at UNCP."
"What can you as parents do to help?" Walker said. "Let go. In higher education, students are their own advocates."
"I am also your advocate," she said. "But I cannot force support on students."
"What parents can do today is to find someone else to give your student advice," she said. "Talk to the other parents here and get some phone numbers."
The freshmen also did a little networking of their own.
"They came in with their parents and were very reserved, but by the end of the first day, they were very relaxed and forming bonds," Walker said.
The freshmen also got to meet upperclassmen. Several members of the Disabled Student Organization, who volunteered for the event, said it is an idea whose time has come.
"It's a good idea to get to know the campus and the (DSS) office," said Leila Mayer, a junior from Raleigh. "With by back disability, I needed more time to move in."
Representatives from UNCP's Office of Disabilities Support Services will deliver their finding on this pilot orientation later this fall at a meeting at Duke University.