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The Carletonian

Disability Services hires first-ever peer leaders

<bility Services Office hired five peer leaders this past July. The peer leader position is new to the office, which had previously consisted of only Director Chris Dallager and Assistant Director Andy Christensen.   
Last year Dallager requested peer leaders for the office and the college approved the extra fees. In March, he reached out to people who he thought would do well in the position.

The hiring process was finalized in late July, Dallager reported, making Disability Services the last office to hire its peer leaders.

The Disability Services Office has smallest group of peer leaders on campus. “I kept it small for a reason,” said Dallager. He thought that fewer peer leaders would allow for greater supervision.

“We want to keep it closely-knit so we’re all getting the right guidance and aren’t spread out all over the place,” said peer leader Maddie Talamantes ’19.

When Dallager was hired to the office in July 2016, the possibility of peer leaders opened up, Dallager explained. “With one person, it was all about keeping up with the daily workload—managing a group of peer leaders wouldn’t have been feasible,” he said.

Not all of the peer leaders were previously affiliated with the office. “In terms of changing the culture, we need to all be on board—I thought it was important to have some students who had experience with disability, but I was open to both,” said Dallager.

Each of the five peer leaders was assigned to a particular speciality within Disability Services. The five areas of expertise concussions and brain injury, the autism spectrum, ADHD, learning disability and depression and anxiety.

According to Dallager, the peer leaders’ purpose is to aid in the transition to Carleton for first-year students affiliated with Disability Services. “Often high-school students with disabilities have other people doing most of the leg-work for them, and at college the responsibility is flipped,” he said. “It’s now on the student to make themselves known to the college in order to get their needs met.”

The peer leaders’ priorities include mentoring students and working on long-term projects, Dallager explained.
Dallager matched each peer leader with six to seven incoming freshmen who had requested accommodations. The mentor-mentee pairings are loosely informed by the peer leaders’ individual areas of expertise. 

The peer leaders meet with their mentees at the mentees’ discretion. “We don’t make an assumption that everybody needs the same approach,” Dallager emphasized.

Peer leader Murphy Nosanchuk ’19 noted that some students may choose to never meet with their peer leader, while some may want weekly meetings. “Everybody’s having a different experience with disability and with Carleton,” he said. “It’s a case-by-case basis, so some people feel they need it more than others.”

The purpose of the peer connection is multifold, said Dallager. “For some it’s going to be about social connections, for others it’s going to be about time management and planning, and for others it’s going to be hit-or-miss issues that come up,” he said.

Talamantes emphasized the importance of incoming freshmen having a peer they can talk to about disability. “Students are more likely to open up to a peer in some situations,” she said. In the past, to reach out to Disability Services students had to set up an appointment with Dallager or Christensen in their office, “but now you can just have a meeting in Sayles—it’s a little bit less pressure. We’re a connector to the office.”

Talamantes also said that there are limitations to the peer leaders’ scope. “We aren’t therapists, we don’t have any medical training,” she said. “We’re just here to help.”

For Nosanchuk, being a peer leader is a matter both of connecting the Disabilities Services Office with the greater campus and working on improvements within the office.

For the latter part of that role, the five peer leaders are working on a number of projects, Dallager reported. These projects include training students on audio note taking software, creating informational cards for Admissions officers and reviewing apps that help with various disabilities, he explained.

The five peer leaders as a group weekly with Dallager and Christensen to check in about their mentoring and ongoing projects.

Peer leaders allow the office greater visibility, Talamantes said. “We’re trying to make the Disabilities Services office more accessible—by making sure people know it’s there and what it can offer, as well as trying to build connections with the people that are already affiliated with it.”

So far, said Talamantes, “It’s been going really well. The students are great and very receptive to the idea. We’ve been working really hard as an office to keep up with the incoming class and make sure they’re talking to their professors about the accommodations.”

“We’re going to keep learning this year,” she added. “It’s the first year, so none of us know exactly what we’re doing, but we’re a really great group and everyone wants to do well for their mentees and for the office.”

“The peer leaders would like to expand their focus towards broader campus activities, but are still “in the planning stage,” Nosanchuk said. “As the year progresses, and as we move through the years, I can guarantee you we will become more visible.”

For example, Dallager hopes to work with disability specialists to develop a zero-credit program that Carleton students could participate in, similar to the Office of Health Promotion’s Happy Hour workshop.

“Starting a new program, it’s difficult to predict everything that might come up,” Dallager said. “But what I’ve seen from the PLs is a willingness to jump in and take risks.”

“Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll feel like we’ve made significant strides toward having a thoughtful vision about how this program should be,” said Dallager. “I think we’ll learn more from our mistakes than we will from what we thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

“The peer-to-peer angle is very new for the department,” Nosanchuk said. “I can’t personally predict where it’s going to go, but I’m optimistic.”

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