St. Olaf College | News

St. Olaf receives $1.3 million grant to support students with disabilities

St. Olaf College received a $1.3 million grant to launch a new TRIO Support Services for Students with Disabilities (SSSD) program.

The grant from the United States Department of Education will enable the new SSSD program, led by director Chang Dao Vang ’11, to support 100 students per year with documented disabilities in both academic and personal development. The program is open to students with a wide range of disabilities, including but not limited to mobility and physical impairments, mental health conditions, cognitive or learning disabilities, and somatosensory impairment. 

TRIO Student Support Services logo with white background.TRIO Programs, funded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, help students overcome class, social, and cultural barriers to higher education. St. Olaf already offers several other TRIO programs to support current students, including Student Support Services (SSS) and the McNair Scholars Program

The new SSSD program is a college retention and graduation program to support students with documented disabilities registered with Disability and Access. Because data shows that individuals with neurodiverse traits and other disabilities have lower retention and graduation rates, the undergraduate students selected through an application process to participate in the SSSD program will be connected with resources, programming, and one-on-one mentorship to succeed despite these challenges. 

Portrait of Chang Dao Vang with windows in the background.
Chang Dao Vang ’11 will direct the new TRIO Support Services for Students with Disabilities (SSSD) program at St. Olaf College.

“Our mantra is that we’ll always be there for you,” Vang says. “We want to make sure that the Ole experience is accessible to students with disabilities, and we’ll be hosting community-building events and activities throughout the months and years to build a network of support.”

In order to receive funding for the program, Center for Advising and Academic Support Director Kathy Glampe ’92, Associate Director of Disability and Access Laura Knobel-Piehl, and Disability and Access Specialist Joseph Young convened last year to write the 65-page proposal submitted to the Department of Education. With support from Assistant Director of Institutional Research and Student Success Lauren Feiler, Director of Student Support Services Brian Greening, and Associate Professor of Education Heather Campbell, the grant was approved in September 2020. 

The SSSD program is not focused on providing accommodations, but is centered around learning self-advocacy skills and taking ownership of one’s learning. Through workshops on financial literacy, mental health, and test-taking strategies, SSSD strives to promote equity in the classroom and build community.

“It’s important to shed light on the normalcy that every single person in the world, if we’re lucky, is temporarily abled. There will come a time in almost everyone’s life where they will have a mobility, mental health, or vision challenge,” Knobel-Piehl says. “Our society is realizing that the more backgrounds and viewpoints that are represented on a team, the more ideas are generated. Neurodiversity is diversity, and I’m hoping that SSSD will highlight that ability diversity is normal and valued.” 

Our society is realizing that the more backgrounds and viewpoints that are represented on a team, the more ideas are generated. Neurodiversity is diversity, and I’m hoping that SSSD will highlight that ability diversity is normal and valued.Laura Knobel-Piehl

SSSD aims to dismantle environmental barriers and bring awareness to the campus community, decreasing the need for classroom accommodations. “SSSD can play a role in helping professors universally design their classrooms. If my classroom is designed so it’s accessible to everybody because of the way I’ve constructed it, then students don’t have to seek out accommodations,” Campbell says. “St. Olaf is a small community, and we need to provide support for members of our community.”

Vang is taking a student-first approach to developing the SSSD program. Utilizing multiple feedback avenues, he hopes to create holistic support tailored toward the needs and circumstances of eligible students. “There’s a wide array of disabilities, so any service we do, we want to make sure that the student is always going to be involved in the development of it,” he says. “It’s in the name: student services. We want to make sure that the services we provide are relevant to the students and they will benefit from it.”

As part of the wider TRIO community, SSSD creates opportunities for students to overcome financial, social, and cultural barriers in higher education. “I hope that students see SSSD as a very supportive community that has helped them to do their best academically and have a fulfilling career after St. Olaf,” Glampe says. “If students can say that, then we have done our job.”

Applications are currently open for St. Olaf’s TRIO SSSD program. While spots are limited to 100 participants per year, campus resources the Wellness Center, College Ministry, and Boe House Counseling Center, among others are available to all students. 

“A staple of TRIO programs is the network of support built among students and staff participating in the program,” Vang says. “A lot of our students have stated that with the additional guidance and support of another person, they’ll know that we’ll always be there to help them navigate St. Olaf College. We’ll be listening to seek understanding instead of listening to respond to you because we want your voices to be heard and matter on campus too.”