M. Dolores Cimini, 55, is a licensed psychologist with expertise in alcohol- and other drug-abuse prevention in higher education, and director of the nationally recognized Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program at the State University of New York at Albany. The program, named for Tolkien's fantasy world, trains students to help other students reach their educational goals and deal with emotional issues. Legally blind since age 16, Ms. Cimini is dedicated to helping students with disabilities succeed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known as the STEM fields. She is co-chair of an American Psychological Association committee promoting successful outcomes in those fields specifically for female students with disabilities. Here's her story, as told to Ann Schnoebelen.
As they pursue advanced degrees, people with disabilities face many attitudinal, technological, and societal barriers. My aim is to use my own skills and experiences as a woman with a visual disability working in the sciences to assist younger people with disabilities who are entering STEM professions.
I've mentored students from across the country with all kinds of disabilities. It is so important to believe in our students with disabilities and to work in collaboration with them to secure access to and design programs of study that will help them realize their goals and capitalize on their resilience.
I also encourage students to pursue the doors of opportunity that open for them. Many times they have a sense of what the direct path should be to their ultimate goals. But what I've learned is that the door that opens for us is sometimes not the door we expect. We need to be flexible and go on the path with the open door, which could lead to new opportunities and success.
One of our former graduate assistants in our Middle Earth program, Kimberly Esterman, was a cancer survivor. When she was about to begin an internship to finish her doctoral program in counseling psychology, she was told her cancer had spread. There was really not hope she would live much longer. At that time, many people—including Kimberly—didn't believe that she could complete her degree. But when I asked her about her most important personal goal, she said, "Before I die, I want to finish my Ph.D." I told her, "There's no reason you can't." Within months of completing the internship and getting her doctorate, Kimberly passed away.
It's too often the case that students are not given the access and encouragement they need to pursue their interests. Sometimes educators don't believe students with disabilities can achieve in a specific area, so they don't provide accommodations for them to access and learn the materials. The tools available are as varied as there are disabilities, and many are low cost. Still, technologically, the accessibility arena doesn't move as fast as would be ideal.
My advice to colleagues who want to help students pursue their dreams in the STEM fields is to be persistent. Be flexible. Capitalize on the strengths and resilience of those you work with. Know that each one of us is a vehicle for transformation.