It may not have been intentional, but it's indicative of Iowa State's pledge to help every student be successful. When orientation guests check in at the Hixson-Lied Success Center this month, a few steps past the sign-in table is a determined group of employees dedicated to a supportive learning environment for all students.

Student Accessibility Services (SAS) staff work with students with documented disabilities on accommodations ranging from the classroom to dining. Director Jamie Niman leads a group of four other coordinators who visit with hundreds of students during June.

I love it because I feel like we build a bridge for [students] to know what is available, who to talk to and explain all the support services that match their needs.

Wendy Stevenson, senior accessibility coordinator

Welcome meeting

"I think many of them are nervous because some students had to fight for their accommodations previously," said senior accessibility coordinator Wendy Stevenson. "We may not be able to get everything they want, but many times what they are asking for is just appropriate and will be put in place."

Stevenson has been a kind face and reassuring voice for more than a decade to new students and parents who pull up chairs at her desk to discuss the possibilities.

"I love it because I feel like we build a bridge for them to know what is available, who to talk to, and we explain all the support services that match their needs," she said.

While some orientation programming is conducted for larger groups, SAS coordinators meet individually with students who have an accommodation request. In an information-packed 45 minutes, Stevenson quickly puts the student in control.

"We pay attention to the student and get them to do all the talking," she said. "For a lot of them, during the K-12 experience they sat back and listened to others talk about them, but we want them to be able to advocate for themselves."

For Stevenson and her colleagues, the meetings can be as much about lessening general college anxiety as the accommodations themselves. But, for every student, she lays out the many services available to them, from supplementary instruction sessions to tutoring and academic skills coaching. Needs can include time extensions to complete exams, technology to hear instructors or take notes, and a sign language interpreter.

SAS staff also offer virtual meetings which allow them to begin connecting with students prior to summer orientation.

"We want to be very accessible and offer multiple options," Niman said. "In the orientation material, we do encourage students to reach out to us early so we can begin to help them."

Senior accessibility coordinator Wendy Stevenson visits with an incoming student during a welcome meeting at Student Accessibility Services.
Senior accessibility coordinator Wendy Stevenson said she focuses on getting the student to lead the conversation so they learn to advocate for themselves.

Every student's story

Headshot of Jamie Niman.
Jamie Niman

As some of the first Iowa Staters to connect with students and families during orientation, Niman said the team can sense their excitement and relief. Every student has a story and has overcome challenges, they said.

Niman encourages their staff to learn about each individual student. Two students can have the same disability, but how it impacts them is vastly different, Niman said. Learning how an accommodation benefits them or could be improved may determine how successful they are in different environments across campus.

"We really want to think holistically about how we can serve each student," Niman added.

"For some students, our task may be simply transferring accommodations used in high school, but for others, it's an in-depth conversation about what will help them be successful at ISU. For example, how to function and learn in a large lecture hall may not be something they've thought about if their high school classrooms held fewer than 20 students."

Beyond the first meeting

In addition to conducting welcome meetings, Niman meets with students interested in the neurodiversity support program. Students apply to take part in one-on-one weekly meetings that help them assimilate to college life during their first year. The program includes a review of accommodations, but also experiences students may not be familiar or comfortable with, such as using CyRide to navigate campus and Ames.

"These are not things students always think about, but they are very important. We had one student who walked from Friley Hall to Best Buy [on South Duff Avenue] to buy a computer monitor because they were unsure of using the bus," Niman said.

Staff built six modules for students in Canvas -- the university's learning management system -- to help ease anxiety about tasks like riding the bus or navigating campus dining centers.

"We took a camera outside and recorded how to get on the bus and how to get back to campus," Niman said. "It sounds very simple, but it can be very helpful."