woman in wheelchair with Senator Tom Harkin on steps of U.S. capitolHello past, present, and future University of Illinois students.  I’m Dana, an alumna of U of I, and as a person with a disability, an alumna of U of I’s Disability Resources and Educational Services.  Before coming to the university, I didn’t think much about disability services.  I was coming to school on a wheelchair basketball scholarship, so I assumed that Illinois would be magically equipped with everything I would need to be successful in my pursuit of higher education, athletics, and social opportunities.  Unfortunately, as many of you laughing at my naiveté are probably aware, such a world only exists where money grows on trees and lakes are filled with chocolate.  Enter DRES.

I first became aware of DRES before my classes even began, registering as a student with a disability so I could gain access to a dorm room with lowered shelves and widened doorways (because in dorms every inch of space counts).  Then it was priority registration of my classes, allowing me to work around my intensive basketball schedule, certainly a nice perk.  A few days later I realized I would be at DRES several times per week to use their fully accessible gym equipment and the services of the seemingly omnipresent trainers and physical therapists on staff.  After a few months, I recognized a foe much greater than medicine ball pushups, one alien to me and my Atlanta origins: snow.  Yes, out-of-towners it will happen to you, it will last seemingly forever, and DRES will be there to make it more manageable.

I guess you can see that I had become rather reliant on the services provided by DRES, but even I didn’t realize how much I would depend on them in order to accomplish what were to become two of the greatest experiences of my college career: a study abroad and an internship.  As an international studies major who had been learning Mandarin Chinese since my freshman year, I knew I was going to be studying abroad for a semester.  From past experience, I anticipated this was going to be a more difficult task, not only battling the lack of physical accessibility in Beijing, but also the mindsets of foreign program staff, who clearly had no concept of the capabilities of someone with a disability.  Fortunately, the staff at DRES was there to support me every step of the way, making my semester abroad one I will never forget.  The second life changing experience was the internship in Washington, DC, the internship that ultimately shaped my career goals, the internship that I heard about through DRES.  Are you noticing a pattern yet?

During the fall of my sophomore year, I got the regular e-mail from DRES with news and other information including opportunities for people with disabilities.  That was when I saw the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) Summer Internships Program, a fully-paid summer in DC working on Capitol Hill or in a federal agency with others with similar aspirations and wildly different disabilities.  It seemed like a dream come true and so it was.  My summer interning for Senator Harkin (D-IA), drafter of the Americans with Disabilities Act helped me to focus in on my future career goals and to achieve them.  I am now a member of AAPD’s staff of passionate advocates for people with disabilities here in Washington, DC.  In short, I guess this is me urging you to follow your bliss, whatever that may be, but allow DRES and University of Illinois to support you on that journey.  Best of luck!