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Disability Studies Student and Advocate Shares Her Story
In honor of CUNY Disability Awareness Month this April, CUNY SPS is shining a spotlight on students, alum, and faculty who have made an outsized impact on the disability community here at CUNY SPS and beyond.
This week we sit down with Lennyn Jacob, who was recently named to the City & State's 2023 Higher Education Power 100 list for her work with the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD), where she advocates to protect the rights of more than 10,000 students with disabilities across CUNY’S 25 colleges.
Jacob, who has an associate degree in liberal arts from Bronx Community College, is currently attending the CUNY SPS BA in Disability Studies program. She also works as a disability accommodation specialist at Hostos Community College’s Accessibility Resource Center.
The following interview details more of her story as a student, parent, professional, and disabilities advocate.
What inspired you to attend the disability studies BA program at CUNY SPS?
You could say the disability field is in my blood. Besides being a woman with an invisible disability and the mother to a neurodiverse teenage son, I also spent 12 years working with disabled children in the New York City Department of Education as a teaching assistant. When I came to college in Spring 2020, during a global pandemic, I simply joined the community where my heart was, the disability field. The BA in Disability Studies program at CUNY SPS is right in line with what I have been working towards and living my entire life.
How did you become involved with CUNY’s Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD)?
I initially learned about CCSD through the disability office at Bronx Community College (BCC). I had spoken with the disability director, Maria Pantoja, about the fact that I was going through a hard time and needed a community where I could find support. She told me about the CCSD@BCC club and connected me to their CUNY LEADS (Linking Employment, Academics, and Disability Services) advisor.
Then the pandemic struck. As with everything else during that time, it took a bit for everyone to reconnect, but when the CUNY LEADS advisor followed up with me to see how I was doing, I again expressed interest in locating my tribe. He noted that the club would resume meeting, this time virtually, to check in on folks.
Though this experience, I connected with one of my now best friends, Luis Junior Alvarez, who was the president of CCSD@BCC. He informed me that CCSD (university-wide) was holding virtual events. It was true: in the middle of a pandemic, CCSD was the first student group to figure out how to meet and hold their full board meetings and events virtually. This basically gave the disabled community at CUNY a way to stay connected and engaged at a time when folks felt the most isolated.
You have been elected both Secretary (2020-21) and Chairperson (2021-23) of CCSD. What inspired you to run for these two offices?
I ran for secretary because I had stumbled across a great student-created, student-led organization, with a rich 30+ year history, that was doing things for the community that others weren’t. I felt it was my duty to serve, in whatever capacity I could. The expectations of the role were simple: handle the minutes. But that position led me to experience other opportunities I hadn’t experienced before as a student. We created events, both social and educational, from the ground up. We presented at conferences. We focused on engaging students and ensuring that we supported them with information about services. We advocated for their needs, as the organization had in years past, by providing testimony [to the state legislature].
When it came to running for Chair, the team asked me to step up. They felt I was the right person to lead the organization. I was honored to be considered but I was even more honored when the Full Board elected me. In this role, I continue to do the things I mentioned before, just to a greater capacity, but honestly, I couldn’t do any of it without the support of the executive board and my advisors, Charmaine Townsell and Raymond Perez. They have consistently provided me opportunities to try new things, to lead, to grow, and essentially to step up as a leader and now as a professional.
The City & State Higher Education Power 100 list mentions that you gave testimony before the New York State Legislature last year to call for more funding to support students with disabilities. Can you tell us a bit more about this experience?
Testifying before the state legislature was a bit nerve-wracking at first. It’s a big stage, with even greater stakes and one hopes it will be impactful. But one can never truly imagine how great that impact may be. At the time that I began testifying, first as Secretary and now as Chair, we knew that disability services in higher education hadn’t seen an increase in funding in nearly 27 long years. Chairs before me had also taken up the cause, calling attention to this matter during their time leading CCSD. I didn’t begin this work; I stand on the shoulders of giants in that capacity. But it was my turn to take up the cause and do my best to bring attention to the lack of funding for students with disabilities in higher education.
Have you had any successes in securing new funding? Was it enough?
Working in coalition [with other disabilities groups], we secured $2 million two years ago, and an additional $2 million last year across the state. However, $2 million for students with disabilities statewide is the equivalent of $27 dollars per student. We’ve been advocating for 15 million dollars statewide for the past few years. I hope we can achieve this in some capacity.
The goal is to get the needs of students with disabilities met, state-wide, by adequately funding the offices that provide them with their much-needed services. That’s the only way those services and assistive technologies can be made available to students with disabilities throughout their college careers. After all, students with disabilities, like their non-disabled counterparts, come to college for the same reason: to provide a better life for their families.
Has your experiences in the CUNY SPS disability studies program inspired your advocacy work in CCSD (or vice versa)?
I’m just starting out in the CUNY SPS disability studies BA program, but what I can say is this: while I may have a love for the disability field and have been involved in it for many years, the program provides historical knowledge that I simply don’t have. I was inspired to take this program because I’m acquiring knowledge that is not just valuable but needed. It’s like the saying, “you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” but in this case it’s more like “you can’t know how to improve the system unless you know disability history and understand what disabled people have been through and how the movement has evolved.”
How are you planning to use your degree?
I plan to continue to help students with disabilities in higher education, preferably here at CUNY in whatever capacity that may take. I hope to be an administrative higher education professional in this field.
April is CUNY Disability Awareness Month. How are you celebrating it?
We [CCSD] are presenting at a few conferences, including the CUNY Neurodiversity Conference and the CUNY Accessibility Conference. We also intend to hold some meetings and social events as we typically do for our members to have an opportunity to stay engaged.
About Disability Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies
Disability Studies is an emerging academic field that explores disability from multiple perspectives, including the social sciences, humanities, science, and the law. CUNY SPS offers groundbreaking, fully accredited online degree and certificate programs within Disability Studies including the BA in Disability Studies, MA in Disability Studies, MS in Disability Services in Higher Education, Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies, and Advanced Certificate in Disability Services in Higher Education.
About the CUNY School of Professional Studies
As New York's leading online school since 2006, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) offers the most online bachelor's and master's degree options at the City University of New York, and serves as the University's first undergraduate all-transfer college. With 26 degrees and numerous other non-degree and grant-funded workplace learning programs, CUNY SPS meets the needs of adults who wish to finish a bachelor's degree, progress from an associate's degree, earn a master's degree or certificate in a specialized field, and advance in the workplace or change careers. Consistently ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report for its online offerings, CUNY SPS has emerged as a nationwide leader in online education. The School's renowned and affordable online programs ensure that busy working adults may fulfill their educational goals on their own time and schedule.
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