"The faculty are competent, capable, and committed. The did a marvelous job translating theory into what that means in real life. And most of all, they were supportive. Even with issues outside of the coursework, faculty members could meet with me to think through and solve problems with me. This support continues in my current roles as I build infrastructure and develop capacity in this space." – Dr. DeQuan Smith, Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate, Graduate Fall 2023
As an educator, innovator, and servant-leader, Dr. DeQuan Smith is dedicated to championing inclusive environments where all students can thrive. DeQuan currently serves as the Founding Dean for the Office of Inclusive Learning and Accessibility Services within the Office of Student Affairs at Morehouse School of Medicine. Recently completing the Postsecondary Disability Services (PDS) Online Graduate Certificate at the University of Connecticut (UConn), DeQuan feels empowered with the knowledge and network of connections to advocate for transformational change.
DeQuan has a history of innovating and advocating for change. With an EdD in Education Leadership and Management, DeQuan is a renowned educator, leader, speaker, author, and strategist in higher education. A leader of leaders, he is dedicated to enhancing educational impact, championing inclusion, and advancing health equity, as he mentors and inspires the next generation of educational leaders. As a servant-leader, he is a man with mission to advocate for transformational change in the disability services space.
Leveraging advocacy to create meaningful change
When DeQuan stepped into his new role as Founding Dean for the Office of Inclusive Learning and Accessibility Services (Assistant Dean) at Morehouse School of Medicine, he knew he needed to deepen his knowledge of disability services. As DeQuan explains, "Our landscape is changing regarding inclusion and barriers around access, nationwide and across the globe. I wanted to learn how I could better understand the theoretical approaches to devising practical solutions supporting student success. I wanted to do a deep dive to figure out, 'How can I put myself in the shoes of others?' While I may not fully understand what it feels like, I want to leverage advocacy to make meaningful change and progress for the masses."
Guided by his Chief Diversity Officer, DeQuan enrolled in UConn's Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate program, utilizing the program as a development tool to accelerate his growth in his new role. Beginning his "deep dive" in fall 2022, DeQuan completed the 12-credit, 4-course program in summer 2023. With a busy career in Atlanta, the flexibility of the asynchronous, online classes was key for DeQuan.
Building knowledge and a network of support
The courses are offered in a sequential order over a period of ten months, beginning in fall semester and ending with the practicum during the summer semester. The integrated design and sequence of the courses enabled DeQuan to continuously expand on new knowledge each semester. "I felt like the courses built on each other, so I wasn't mentally jumping all over the place and saying, 'Ok, what is this?' After I wrapped up one course, the next course just made logical sense, to where I could glean things from the pervious course in support of the course that followed."
Of the faculty, DeQuan raves, "The faculty are competent, capable, and committed. They did a marvelous job translating theory into what that means in real life. And most of all, they were supportive. Even with issues outside of the coursework, faculty members could meet with me to think through and solve problems with me. This support continues in my current role as I build infrastructure and develop capacity in this space. The disability community is really small but large. So, once you know a person, people have an ongoing connectedness in this space."
Low-hanging fruit: Building advocacy collectively
Students in the program are part of a cohort of classmates who proceed through the program as a group, enabling deeper bonds to be formed. Each course had a group-project component that enabled DeQuan to connect and explore ideas with his classmates. This felt especially valuable for him, given the diversity of their backgrounds. “I could really understand what other students did in the field. Some were in research; some were in developmental disabilities; and some came from different landscapes, like K-12 prior education. Disability is one of those spaces where it’s not broad; everybody has a lane. I don’t have a lane: I want to play in all of them. I want to understand better what some of the challenges or barriers are in others’ areas so that I can think through what this could look like in my area and how we can collectively build policy or advocacy in all these spaces. So it added a unique perspective of the challenges across the gamut, but more importantly, I was able to learn what some of the low-hanging fruits of opportunity look like in those spaces.”
DeQuan explains the possibilities this kind of collaboration can open. “Low-hanging fruits are the things we can solve that we all know to be true. I think oftentimes we can all sit in a room and talk and talk, but I’m like, ‘Let’s create a list of things that we know that we can do. Right now.’ Things where we don’t need approval, we don’t need money, we don’t need anything. What we can do right now is advocate. That doesn’t cost a thing. That just requires a heart. I think that’s how we truly change the world: We go after those low-hanging fruit that we don’t know exist if we don’t ask.”
Envisioning the possibilities for a better future, DeQuan adds, “I think this work has an astronomical economic impact and sustainability impact in terms of workforce and continuing educational development – because our universities need to ensure that they have the infrastructure to welcome what the five-year-old kids are doing right now in 13-15 years. There’s a lot of work to be done. And right now, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing outside of disability. So, when you say disability, I’m like, let’s scratch the word disability. Let’s change the word to more people-first language, like diverse-abled.”
Generating and building a culture of inclusion
One of the program's requirements is to complete EPSY 5092 – Practicum in the last semester over the summer. This became an opportunity for DeQuan to apply the knowledge he’d gained throughout the program to designing a plan specific to the needs of his institution. “My practicum was a culminating course, where I built a three-year strategic plan with my site supervisor at my current employer to chart a path to what meaningful change looks like for our institution in this space. Once I get it approved, then we can start implementing it. But I’m optimistic. I got everyone’s blessing internally, so we look forward to launching this.
Launching his strategic plan will provide DeQuan a springboard to achieving his vision of “generating and building a culture of inclusion” at Morehouse School of Medicine, both a medical school and a graduate school – and an historically black college (HBCU). As DeQuan explains, “Some people say, ‘HBCUs, how much more diversity do you need?’ But that’s not necessarily the case. Diversity and inclusion come in several different shapes and forms. A culture of inclusion is where people can understand their unique and individual needs and work or go to school in an environment where they feel supported. They feel like they’re supposed to be where they are, that this place always welcomes them into a space where they feel heard, and their needs are being met from all different perspectives.”
Keeping the whole person at the core
DeQuan appreciates how the DPS program has enriched his capacity to better serve the students he works with. “One thing that I’ll say, probably number one, is that the program taught me always to follow the facts. In the space of disability services, when we’re dealing with clients and students and just people overall, they have a lot of feelings. They don’t feel like they’ve been treated the best or gotten the best care. So, when I’m reviewing a case of any sort, I have to say, ‘people first,’ and I have to acknowledge and validate what the individual has been through: 75% of my work is owning what everyone else has done, ever. That’s a part of the work that I can’t hide from; I don’t want to hide from it, because people need to know that they’ve been wronged. I share with them and validate their feelings and concerns, and I immediately build trust. And that trust looks like only saying the things that I know are possible, not making false promises, underselling and overdelivering, but also keeping the whole person at the core.”
Becoming part of community of scholars
For DeQuan, one of the highlights of the program was becoming a member of the UConn community. When he added the UConn graduate certificate to his LinkedIn profile, DeQuan started benefiting from what he calls “Husky love,” as UConn alumni reached out to connect and congratulate him.
This feeling of becoming a valued community member was further accentuated throughout the program. DeQuan says this is what elevates the program at UConn miles above the rest. “It is important to understand the pathway that will get you the most return on investment. There are programs worldwide that will throw something together to take your money. But to be a part of a community of scholars that value the work, that do the work, that have a proven track record of success, that weave you into the culture of what they do, where you become a product and, quite frankly, a family member in the space, where you can continuously pour back into that space: That is something that’s not for sale. No one had to sell me on coming to UConn. It just made sense.”
DeQuan now feels prepared to lead the way in implementing and advocating for his vision of transformational change. “I’ve been equipped with the knowledge on disability services, where others around me may be guessing. Everybody has all this practical experience, which I think is great; some of that I lack. But what I do know are the laws, the policies, and how to do certain things. These were all things that helped make sure that I’m looking at these cases through a lens of not just social justice and change but doing what’s right by humans. It challenges me every day too. A prayer that I say to myself is, ‘Lord, put me in a space where I can help the most people.’ And this has been that space. I hope that we can continuously engage in building a better world.”
"A Master's in Education is great, but it has little to do with working with students with disabilities. Having the certificate from UConn will definitely help further my career. I'm already feeling the positive effects and am now getting interviews. Even though I only work part-time, I feel ready to show a prospective employer that I'm ready for full-time." — Adam Kosakowski - Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate, Fall 2016
There's nothing more frustrating than applying for jobs in a university or college setting and getting little response—especially when you have a Master's in Education. Thankfully, the tide is turning for Adam Kosakowski.
A graduate of Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Adam quickly realized that teaching college math just "didn't feel quite right to me." As he says, "I really like the college-aged population of students, but I've realized I don't want to be a traditional math teacher."
Over the past year, Adam has worked part-time as an Assistive Technology Specialist at Western Connecticut State University. As he's discovered, helping students with special needs is right up his alley. So when his employer—a UConn alum—asked if he was looking for a career serving college students with disabilities, he said, "Absolutely, yes. That's when she told me about the UConn online certificate program and I immediately applied."
The more you put in, the more you get out
It didn't take long for Adam to figure out that just like any college class, the more effort you put in, the more you get out of the program. "I've found that the harder I've worked, the more confidence I've gained. Now I feel like I can talk intelligently with a prospective employer. I can give them actual examples that demonstrate how I've applied what I've learned in the program to my current job."
So was it hard to get accustomed to being an online student? Adam is a math whiz—and he's familiar with all kinds of technology, so taking online courses is a natural for him. But he says, "It's easy to get up to speed quickly. It's basically an interactive website that works like a forum. You can start a thread, and your fellow students can comment on it. If you know how to use email and social media sites, you'll find this very intuitive and easy to use."
Engaged instructors, engaged students
Plus Adam knows he can turn to his professors for whatever help he needs. As he notes, "Professor Lombardi has been incredibly supportive. I tend to work fast and get assignments done quickly. Even if I send in an assignment before the due date, she gets right back to me. She really cares about the course and pours herself into her job, and that helps me be more engaged."
Adam also points out that the online environment offers advantages that a traditional class setting doesn't. As someone who understands the benefits of assistive technology, he greatly appreciates that the PowerPoint presentations play like videos and include closed captions. "I'm not hard of hearing, but I really like to read along as the video is playing. It helps enhance my comprehension of the material," he says.
"Learning about what other professionals do in their school districts helps me think more creatively about what I can do now and in the future for students with disabilities. I think that anyone in a related field could easily apply the learnings from the certificate program to their jobs." — Lindsay Morales, Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate, Spring 2017
Lindsay Morales intends to combine her online graduate certificate
with her Master's in School Psychology degree—both from
UConn—to help high school students with disabilities successfully
transition into the next phase of their lives.
The Perfect Marriage
Lindsay Morales, a recent Master’s degree recipient in Educational Psychology, who is currently enrolled in UConn’s NEAG School of Education as a 6th year candidate in the School Psychology concentration, will be earning her specialist credential in School Psychology in the spring of 2018. She had no intention of taking the Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate Program at UConn—until she started working with students at the University's Center for Students with Disabilities. She views the addition of the certificate to her Master's degree credentials as the perfect marriage of two specialties, eventually enabling her to help high school students with disabilities transition into whatever life may bring after graduation.
To say Lindsay Morales is busy is an understatement. In addition to her graduate school courses, Lindsay juggles multiple jobs—graduate assistant at UConn's Center for Students with Disabilities; research assistant to Dr. Allison Lombardi; an academic mentor for UConn's Student Athlete Success Program; and Clinical Assessment Examiner for Natchaug Hospital in Hartford, CT. Adding the certificate program on top of all this was no easy feat. But as Lindsay notes, she is learning how to bring effective transition services to the high school environment to affect positive outcomes. "The online certificate program is really preparing me to do awesome transition work as a school psychologist for high school students. It's been an amazing experience."
In fact, Lindsay sees the addition of the certificate to her Master's credentials as the perfect marriage between her training as a K-12 school psychologist and her interest in students with disabilities. She wasn't planning on enrolling in the certificate program, but when she began her job at the Center for Students with Disabilities three years ago, she realized how much she loves working with college students. And she works with a lot of kids!
Surprisingly, about 4,000 students from UConn look to the Center for assistance each year. This includes kids with ADHD, depression, anxiety, chronic physical disabilities – and some students with short-term issues adjusting to college life, among other challenges. As Lindsay notes, "If a high school student were having problems, like if their grades were slipping, the school psychologist would proactively reach out to that person. But in college, no one is going to chase you down if you're having a bad day—or if you lack basic self-advocacy skills and aren't getting to class. Fortunately, our Center has a great outreach and marketing program, so we are quite well-known on the UConn Storrs campus and students in need can seek our support as required."
A wealth of perspectives
So what does Lindsay most appreciate about the certificate program? By far, it's the ability to connect with a diverse blend of professionals, from school psychologists to special education teachers. She also greatly values the exposure she has to guest lecturers, who bring their unique perspectives from other colleges and universities into the program.
"It's so interesting to hear everyone's thoughts on laws in their states or institutions," says Lindsay. "How students go about accessing services can look very different from one institution to the next, or from one state to the next. Learning about what other professionals do in their school districts helps me think more creatively about what I can do now and in the future for students with disabilities. I think that anyone in a related field could easily apply the learnings from the certificate program to their jobs."
Lively online discussions
In addition, the HuskyCT/Blackboard online platform has far exceeded Lindsay's expectations. As she explains, for each weekly module, instructors post questions to which students are required to post at least one original answer. "I make my original post, then wait to see who comments. Then I engage with them in discussions, which can get quite lively. Certainly you can do the minimum to get by. But you wouldn't be accessing the rich information, articles, practice briefs, and other materials provided by the instructors. Like any course, you get out of the program as much as you put in."
Getting a jump start on the future
As Lindsay has discovered, developing connections with other students and the instructors has provided a great opportunity for networking. "When anyone in our cohort hears about research, employment, or conference opportunities, we all let the instructors know and they announce it to the class. It's an excellent way to get a jump start on future opportunities." With her Master's degree from UConn, along with her certificate credential and diverse work experience, there's no doubt many doors will open for Lindsay to make a big difference in the lives of students with disabilities.
“I don’t think I could have gone anywhere else and received the level of knowledge that the Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate program provided. The professors at the University of Connecticut know what they are talking about; after all, UConn is well set up to support students with disabilities. This is one of the best programs in the country for people like me who want to create a classroom environment that helps students with disabilities transition more successfully into college.” — Nichole Fussell, Graduate of the Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate Program, Summer 2019
After completing the certificate program, Nichole Fussell feels so much more prepared to support the educational needs of students with disabilities at Faulkner University in Montgomery, AL.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
Hired in August 2018 as the Director of the Center for Disability Services at Faulkner University in Montgomery, AL, Nichole Fussell was tasked with improving the University’s ability to ensure that all students with disabilities have equal access to the same educational opportunities as other students. A licensed master Social Worker, she had just left a position as a therapist at Crossbridge Behavioral Health. “My new position overseeing the coordination of services to students with disabilities was very different. So I was intrigued when the University’s former disability director recommended enrolling in the Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate program at the University of Connecticut (UConn),” says Nichole, who adds: “I had a strong interest in learning more about legislation and assistive technology as it relates to the students I’d be working with. So I asked the University if I could enroll as part of my training, and they immediately agreed!”
Nichole began the program just a few weeks after she started her new job—and it began to pay off right away. The first of the four courses she took, EPSY 5145 - Issues in Postsecondary Disability Services, offered, among other topics, the historical perspective concerning access in higher education. “One of the important learnings of this course was the difference it makes when students with disabilities receive assistance as they are transitioning into college. It helped me better understand their needs and what I could do to facilitate the transition process at Faulkner.”
A great introduction to Universal Design
During the first course, Nichole was also introduced to the concept of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) and its principles to postsecondary education and disability services, gaining invaluable insights into how to implement UDI throughout Faulkner University. “As a smaller university, we didn’t have a Universal Design strategy in place. But we really wanted to get ahead of the curve before a new year of students started classes. As I proceeded through the Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate program, I learned so much about how to set up a classroom to accommodate all kinds of learners, creating an environment that works for everyone—with and without disabilities.”
Learning how to help students with visual impairments
Having come into the university environment from a therapist position, Nichole had never worked with anyone who was visually impaired. So for the Spring 2019 course, EPSY 5199 - Independent Study in Education, she decided to focus her research on evaluating assistive technology for this particular group of students. Her instructor, Tabitha Mancini, suggested that she interview students to find out how they navigate the classroom in order to determine the types of assistive technologies that would be most helpful. “One of the Faulkner students I interviewed had gone blind later in life due to a medical issue and her family did not push for her to learn Braille. During the program, I found out about ‘tactile drawing film,’ which was especially helpful for this particular student, especially in her math classes. Thanks to the knowledge I gained about all kinds of assistive technologies, we are now ordering a variety of equipment to support the diverse range of learning styles that students with disabilities often have.”
Off to Boston for UConn’s PTI conference
In June 2019, Nichole was able to attend the annual Postsecondary Disability Training Institute (PTI) conference, which this year was held in Boston. The conference, sponsored by UConn's Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, Neag School of Education, is held in conjunction with the final course, EPSY 5092 - Practicum. As Nichole says, “The conference was fantastic. I learned a lot of tips and tricks on how to implement UDI, which I think will help us avoid issues we’ve had in the past. For example, when UDI is properly implemented in the classroom, we have the benefit of there being a wide range of visual and/or audio aids for the variety of different learners in the classroom. When students with disabilities have access to the proper tools and technologies, they may not need additional time to complete a task or take a test. They feel less overwhelmed and are often able to stay in the classroom with their classmates.”
Nichole says the program also taught her how to simplify the Faulkner University’s website, making it easier for students with disabilities to navigate. “With what I learned during the program and from the conference, I was able to work with our Information Technology team to make our website much more accessible for everyone.” She also greatly appreciated learning more about how the law is implemented in disability services and how to find legal information and resources online. “There were many resources I had no idea even existed until I went through the program,” she notes.
Huge knowledge gain
So does Nichole think the program will help further her career? Absolutely, she says. But as she explains, “Even though having the certificate is great for my resume, learning so much about how to help students with disabilities transition to college was the best part of the program. This was a huge knowledge gain for me.”
In conclusion, she says: “I don’t think I could have gone anywhere else and received the level of knowledge that the Postsecondary Disability Services Online Graduate Certificate program provided. The professors at the University of Connecticut know what they are talking about; after all, UConn is well set up to support students with disabilities. The professors were also very approachable and helpful, always answering my questions and guiding me through the program. This is one of the best programs in the country for people like me who want to create a classroom environment that helps students with disabilities transition more successfully into college.”