by Grace Ellsworth
Macalester College students with disabilities find peer support through the MentorUP: Mentoring Program for Students with Disabilities, which pairs students with disabilities in a mentor-mentee relationship. Participants connect over their shared experiences as students with disabilities, providing advice, resources and support in the process. The program is now poised to expand.
Macalester Disability Services was awarded a grant in late 2020 from the Mansergh-Stuessy Fund for College Innovation, part of the St. Paul Foundation. The fund, established in 2011, provides annual grants to an innovative project chosen among applicants from Macalester, Gustavus Adolphus College and Hamline University.
The grant allow Macalester Disability Services to finance, formalize and expand MentorUP, which was developed under the leadership of Director of Disability Services Melissa Fletchers, Disability Services Coordinator Josie Hurka and Disability Service Case Manager Shayne Fettig-Hughes.
Disability Services will use the grant to make changes in fall 2021, offering mentors paid positions and expanding alumni services. Disability Services also intends to increase the number of participants in the program to 10-12 mentors and 80-100 mentees.
“We’re really excited to have this opportunity,” Fletcher said. “It makes your day, when you can bring forward the work of other people, but also just say this matters because it does.”
Another goal for Disability Services is to include alumni connections for mentors and mentees. This could be a valuable way to pass down advice on how to overcome workplace hurdles.
“One person’s experience in negotiating an accommodation with an employer may be very different from someone else’s,” Fletcher said. “We wanted to make sure that students had information about that that was real time experience.”
Fletcher hopes that relationships with alumni will allow students to find examples of thriving professionals who also identify as having a disability. “They’re seeing success,” Fletcher said. “They’re seeing that once they leave that they can get careers, not just jobs but careers that are really in keeping with what they went to school for —and that [former students] were able to navigate that.”
Almost 20 percent of the student body at Macalester face a mental health or physical condition that is classified as a disability. Students with disabilities may confront stigma, a lack of representation and the difficulty of requesting accommodations, among other hurdles.
“Sometimes the things that students with disabilities on campus have to navigate are just a little bit more than other students would,” Fletcher said.
The idea for MentorUP was several years in the making, coming from a need for personalized support and identification among students with disabilities, according to Fletcher. The COVID-19 pandemic created an urgent need for an intentional community. Fletcher and her colleagues were motivated to launch what Hurka called a “beta test” for the mentoring program.
The relationships initiated by MentorUP fill a role that other student services can’t. “When information is passed from student to student, I think it has so much power and so much teaching of self advocacy,” Hurka said.
Sarah Noble ’22, who served as an upperclassman mentor with the test of MentorUP this past fall, applied to the program because of its ability to ease some challenges for students with disabilities.
“For students with disabilities and chronic conditions, accommodations and acceptance are often far from ideal at Macalester and beyond,” Noble said. “Managing a disability on your own can be a difficult and isolating experience.”
MentorUP aims to provide the value of a relationship built on a shared identity to younger students. According to Noble, this is a resource that makes a real difference in a student’s college experience — but can often be overlooked for students with disabilities. Noble cited stigma and lack of awareness as reasons that disabilities are not talked about as openly as other identities.
“It’s easier to notice or feel comfortable asking if someone is a student-athlete or a woman in STEM than it is to ask if someone has a disability,” she said. She and her mentee talked about each other’s experiences, bonded over shared academic interests, discussed asking for accommodations in their academic department and had get boba together on a socially-distanced outing.
Noble supports the grant-supported transition of mentors from volunteer to paid status, saying it ensures that the team of student mentors is more inclusive, especially for students who may not have been able to serve in an unpaid position.
“We’re doing important work to help students, and that work has value–supporting each other in an ableist society takes effort,” Noble said. “Time is valuable, and unpaid work is never equitable.”
But Noble considers her work as a mentor to be essential whether she is a volunteer or formal employee. “Mentoring or even simply accommodating people with disabilities is important, regardless of payment. First and foremost, our mentors work because they care deeply about creating a better environment for disabled students.”
A version of this story appeared in the Mac Weekly newspaper.