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ACE Program Provides Safety Net for New Students with Disabilities

Ace mentors

Coping with the academic and social demands of college can be daunting for any incoming freshman, but the challenges faced by those struggling with disabilities can be even tougher.

Stony Brook’s Academic Community Engagement mentoring program (ACE) is here to help. The ACE program was created to ease the transition into higher ed by building relationships between upper-class students and incoming students with disabilities, helping those students develop a more autonomous skillset for navigating college life.

Ace mentors
ACE mentors in conference

“Keeping up with academics can be difficult if students struggle with a disability,” said Pamela Best ’19, an undergraduate biochemistry/psychology major. “Having a friend and ally in the first year at Stony Brook can be a huge support for these new students.”

ACE is coming off of its inaugural year, marked by a string of successful events and student relationships.

Here’s how the program came about. Wendi Mathews, director of Student Accessibility Support Center (SASC), was a co-researcher in a Participatory Action Research project funded by a Presidential Mini-Grant. Project feedback from student co-researchers indicated that they were in favor of developing a peer mentoring program. In particular, ACE received support from Marisa Bisiani, Assistant Vice President for Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services.

In Spring 2018, Best contacted SASC with an interest in creating a peer mentoring program for students with disabilities. It was during their first meeting that Wendi and lead mentor Pam collaborated on building the SASC mentoring program.

In the program mentors used their knowledge of Stony Brook to provide resources, guidance, advice and strategies and develop programs for mentees, while helping them develop their own leadership skills.

“Making friends in this program helped to humanize a field that had previously been somewhat abstract for me,” Best said. “I saw how my peers with disabilities face the trials that I face.”

Last spring the program featured ten mentors, including Pamela, and ten mentees, who had applied for the program with a written application, followed by an interview. Students must meet the following requirements to participate in the program:

  • Be a matriculated upper-class student
  • Must commit to be enrolled for both fall and spring semesters
  • Have a cumulative and semester GPA of 2.5
  • Have no disciplinary actions; and
  • Have a solid understanding of the University

Mentors help their mentees strategize to manage their time, staying on top of their assignments, maintain good mental health, build their social groups, become involved on campus and connect with campus resources as necessary.

ACE mentors
From left, mentor Gianna D’Ambrozio, director Wendi Mathews, mentor Janine Dwyer, lead mentor Pamela Best

Mathews trained the mentors with assistance from Best. Together they created a mentor handbook, which discussed program structure, qualities of a peer mentor, responsibilities, confidentiality and crisis intervention. Additionally, mentors were educated on accommodations, disabilities and the potential impacts those disabilities might have on students transitioning to a college environment.

More than anything, ACE is a place to meet friends. “It gave these students a network of compassionate people who they could turn to when the semester got rough,” said Best. “Too many of the mentees, this was their main social circle for a while. Mentees who were struggling to find a sense of belonging found lasting, supporting friendships with their mentor and the other people in the program.”

Like any group of friends, ACE made a recreational component top priority. The year began with a kickoff pizza party, followed by movie nights, an open mic night, dog therapy events, an evening of sharing hobbies and interests with the group and a show at the Staller Center.

For Best, perhaps the greatest satisfaction came from watching one of the mentees become a program mentor. Another highlight was witnessing how the experience one mentor had in the program inspired her to become a social worker.

Best is leaving Stony Brook to work as a research coordinator and pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, but she knows she has left an indelible footprint here.

Plans are already in the works for the 2019-20 academic year, including upgrading from 10 mentor-mentee relationships to 15, more events, casual dinners and study sessions and bringing Mentor NY, a consulting firm, to campus to help run training sessions for the mentors.

— Glenn Jochum

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