CSI Student with Visual Impairment Looks Forward to Graduation and Graduate School

Cheriyan utilizing assistive technology in the CSA

Although Ben Cheriyan ’16 had trepidations about attending college as a student with a visual impairment, he decided that he would not give in to his fears.

This spring, the College of Staten Island (CSI) Psychology major, who is minoring in Business, celebrates graduation, as well as academic and co-curricular success at the College. Carrying a 3.675 GPA, at this year’s Commencement, Cheriyan will receive a Cum Laude Award, Honors in the Department, the James Ortiz Jr. Memorial Award, and the CSI Auxiliary Corporation Excellence in Psychology.

“As a freshman, I had doubt in myself and feared my visual impairment would hold me back. Through the amazing people I met during my time at CSI, I learned that it was not my vision that was holding me back but fear itself,” said Cheriyan, who received a 2016 CSI Undergraduate Research Stipend for the Spring 2016 semester and served as an ALPHA Club and CSI Student Government member, as well as the treasurer of Psychology Club.

Cheriyan at the CSI Undergraduate Research Conference

The Ralph McKee Career and Technical High School graduate is grateful to the staff at the Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) for supporting his efforts throughout his college career.

“The Center went above and beyond to make sure I received reasonable accommodations and provided me with necessary assistive technology. What I appreciate the most about the CSA is that they took time to know me as an individual and not just as someone who is visually impaired,” commented Cheriyan, a 21 year old from Sunnyside.

Cheriyan also worked closely with Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, Assistant Professor of Psychology at CSI and Coordinator of Project REACH, a program aimed to help students on the autism spectrum succeed in college and beyond. He began work with the Project’s peer mentoring program in Spring 2013 as a mentee, and with Professor Gillespie-Lynch’s guidance and encouragement, he became a mentor the following year. Cheriyan has also been conducting research under Professor Gillespie-Lynch as he works with her on his honors thesis. The topic of his thesis is whether participating in a peer-mentorship intervention improves test anxiety in college students.

“What I appreciate the most about Prof. Gillespie is that she has high standards for me despite being legally blind. In the past, teachers have kind of ‘babied’ me because I was visually impaired. The skills I have learned under Kristen are something I will continue to use as I progress in academia and in the workforce,” said the student, who is planning to apply for a Master’s Degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology for the Spring 2017 semester. Cheriyan’s career goal is to work with individuals with disabilities to provide appropriate job training and accommodations to succeed on the job.



CSI’s Project REACH Gets National Attention

Professor Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, assistant professor of psychology and director of Project REACH at CSI, was featured in an article about Project REACH on several news Web sites, including NBC News.

The article written by Meredith Kolodner was also published in The Hechinger Report, an online news source that covers inequality in higher education, and The Huffington Post.

Project REACH is a program aimed to help students on the autism spectrum succeed in college and beyond. One of the goals of the program is to assist students with a variety of aspects such as social skills.

“You can talk at people all you want about social skills,” said Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, “but there has to be an element of doing it for people to learn it. … That’s why we have the group classes.”

The full article is posted on the NBC News, The Huffington Post, and The Hechinger Report Web sites.








Project REACH at CSI Featured in Huffington Post

The City University of New York’s Project REACH program works to support college students on the Autism Spectrum.  The program, including the efforts at the College of Staten Island’s Center for Student Accessibility, was discussed in a Huffington Post article.

“You can talk at people all you want about social skills,” said Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, assistant professor of psychology and director of Project REACH at CSI, “but there has to be an element of doing it for people to learn it. … That’s why we have the group classes.”

“That’s one of the biggest changes and challenges for students with disabilities when they enter college,” said Joanne D’Onofrio, associate director of the Center for Student Accessibility at CSI. “They have to learn to be effective self-advocates and they may never have learned those skills when they were in high school.”

To read the article, visit the Huffington Post Web site.

Center for Student Accessibility Works with Academic Departments on Initiative for Students on the Autism Spectrum

Digital artwork created by Project REACH participant Michael Giannola.

The Center for Student Accessibility (CSA), in conjunction with the Department of Psychology and the Department of Computer Science, embarks upon its second semester this month with a new program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and other disabilities. The initiative, funded by the FAR Fund, is called Project REACH.

Goals of the program include increasing campus awareness and knowledge about ASDs, providing academic, professional development, and career planning tools to students with ASDs and other disabilities, providing opportunities for social interactions and mentorship for individuals with ASDs and other disabilities, providing a rapid screening tool to identify students with high numbers of autistic traits who might benefit from further evaluation, and evaluating the impacts of these resources on the quality of life and academic success of students with disabilities.

The Project was pioneered by CSI faculty members Kristen Gillespie-Lynch and Patricia Brooks and then Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) Director Chris Cruz Cullari, along with Bertram Ploog, Deborah Sturm, and Nelly Tournaki.

Original artwork by Leonard Donegan.

Joanne D’Onofrio, now the Interim Director of the CSA, worked closely with Cullari during the vanguard of the project and sees the programming expanding this academic year.

The Project REACH program established an Autism Resource Center as well as Web-based supports in an effort to increase the academic, social, and professional success of students with ASDs. While the CSA has a strong foundation of support for the College community, using the tenets of most effective methods for students with ASDs, the Center will benefit from these additional resources.  The College of Staten Island is the CUNY college with the largest number of students with ASDs; more than 80 students at CSI are identified with ASDs, a notable increase from 2007 when only seven students with ASDs were registered. Students with ASDs face a variety of academic and social challenges. By helping students develop their self-advocacy and professional skills, Project REACH hopes to address many of the complex issues and needs that students, faculty, and staff face.

The Autism Resource Center, which serves as a hub of information for individuals with ASDs, faculty, and peers, is located in the Center for Student Accessibility (1P-101). The Resource Center features technology, books (such as autobiographies by people with ASDs and their family members), and informational DVDs and pamphlets about ASD resources, including internship and employment opportunities.

This past academic year, CSI Psychology Professor and ASD specialist Gillespie-Lynch worked directly with students with ASDs on academic advising and career planning, and also with faculty and peer mentors who work with individuals with ASDs. Project REACH provides professional development for faculty and staff to guide them in working more productively with students with ASDs.  It also pairs students with peer mentors who assist in connecting students with ASDs with resources across the campus, such as the Career and Scholarship Center, and beyond.

“By training faculty across academic departments, we hope to create a campus-wide team of faculty mentors who are knowledgeable about ASD and interested in meeting regularly with students with ASD. Training will increase the sensitivity of faculty members to the variety of difficulties students with ASD may face on campus and in the classroom, and will assist them in providing support to ensure students’ academic success,” noted Dr. Gillespie-Lynch, adding that a related goal is to provide training for CSI undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in working as academic tutors or peer mentors for students with ASDs.

The Website, including a mobile interface, is comprised of sections such as general information about ASDs, preliminary ASD screening, and a social calendar of the proposed new resource center’s events, as well as tutoring opportunities and workshops for students with ASDs and for faculty and peer mentors. The Resource Center is also used to develop a monthly calendar of synergistic activities and workshops.

“We have had a very successful first year hosting Project REACH, and I am very excited that CUNY has once again funded this collaborative effort with Dr. Kristen Gillespie-Lynch and the Psychology Department.  We will continue to work with other partners, including the Institute for Basic Research, Parent to Parent of NYS, and ACCES-VR Staten Island,” noted D’Onofrio. “Based on feedback from students during focus groups at the end of the spring term, the goal of the mentorship project for the fall of 2013 is to help students develop their self-advocacy and public speaking skills in group sessions, as well as optional one-on-one meetings, which will assist students in developing their academic and employment skills.”

Project coordinators continue to pursue grants from appropriate funding agencies to extend the project. Professor Brooks is also leading the project’s efforts to engage in a longitudinal study of students with ASDs in a college setting, examining the variables that impact students’ success and completion.

The CSA is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

For further information is available on the CSA’s Autism education page.

“My Story” Panel Reflects on College Life

Brigette Jara was a panelist at last semester's My Story event.

“People seem nervous about communicating with me, but they really shouldn’t be,” urged College of Staten Island senior, Brigette Jara, a student who is deaf. The Cinema Studies major was one of 11 students with disabilities who spoke at the Center for Student Accessibility’s (CSA) third annual “My Story” event last semester.

Presenting their candid stories of challenge and triumph in college to an audience of more than 125 students, faculty, staff, friends, and family, the panelists were proud to share their feelings and experiences.  The April 10 presentation in the Recital Hall served as the kick-off event for CUNY Disability Awareness Month and is one of a dozen events that the CSA sponsored in honor of the month. Organized by CSA Director Chris Cruz Cullari, Assistant Director Joanne D’Onofrio, and Project Manager Sara Paul, “My Story” is one of the biggest and most significant events that the Center coordinates. The purpose of the annual event is to both educate individuals with and without disabilities and to diffuse some of the stereotypes surrounding college students with disabilities.

Jara says, for example, she encounters many CSI students who don’t attempt to communicate with her. “My peers can text or Facebook me, communicate with me through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, or simply write things down,” stressed Jara, who plans to become a film professor.

Other CSI student panelists included Annemarie Cantasano, a student with a learning disability; Andrew Petrone, a student who is deaf; Chris Williams, a student with a physical disability; Stephanie Pietropaolo, a student who has cerebral palsy and a learning disability; Lauren Butler (Glennon), a student who has Marfan’s Syndrome; John Campione, a student who has cerebral palsy; Rob Holminski, a student who has social anxiety disorder and a learning disability; Marybeth Melendez, a graduate student who is blind; Ryan LaMarche, a student who has Asperger’s Syndrome; and Sean Thatcher, a student who is a quadriplegic.

The afternoon program began with remarks from Cruz Cullari, D’Onofrio, and Vice Presidentfor Student Affairs Dr. A Ramona Brown, an active supporter of CSA initiatives and efforts. A brief video montage created by Center staff highlighted CSA milestones and gave general information about students with disabilities on the national level. Cruz Cullari also articulated some interesting reflections on students with disabilities. His introductory comments also gave context to the event and to the issues surrounding students with disabilities and disability service provision in higher education today.

“It’s powerful to hear the candid stories of perseverance from our students,” noted Cruz Cullari.  “This event, in a very real way, captures the importance of our work.”

The two-hour program captivated audience members, many of whom left with very different ideas of what it means to be a college student with a disability. From Thatcher, who was injured in June 2009 when he lunged into a lake and fractured his C4, C5, and C6 vertebras leaving him a quadriplegic, to Williams, who bravely rushed to save his sister from harassment and was shot nine times by a gang member, the panelists did not leave out any of the sometimes painful and emotional details of their lives. The impact on the audience was evident.

“People don’t understand how strong and intelligent students with disabilities are. If these amazing individuals can achieve their goals, there is really no excuse for those individuals who do not have a disability,” commented Vincent DiCristo, a CSI freshman who plans to apply to the Nursing program.

“It’s people like Chris Williams who give the world hope as well as give strength to addressing this taboo topic openly,” commented Hadeel Ayesh, a CSI freshman.

Indeed, the “My Story” speakers agree that the event is a necessary staple in the CSI events calendar.

“I think it was and will continue to be a great learning experience for those who share their story and for all who come to listen,” commented Campione, a senior who was accepted into CSI’s Mental Health Counseling program.

“‘My Story’ allows for a parallel process of the teaching and learning experience to occur in a holistic way at a venue where it is relaxed, yet informative at the same.

“We, the panelists, have a responsibility to the campus community and to our peers to leave our footprints and to educate the new student body. We are taking this opportunity to be out of the classroom and to have a thinking moment, a human moment,” said Melendez, who is graduating in January 2014 with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. “You are learning about real people with real challenges and how they were able to overcome. That is something that anyone can embrace and incorporate into their own lives whether they have a disability or not.”

The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Samantha Frank Wins CSI’s Got Talent: Student with a Disability Urges People Not to Doubt Themselves

Samantha Frank won the Grand Prize at this year's CSI's Got Talent competition.

When Sami Jo (Samantha) Frank heard that she was the Grand-Prize winner of CSI’s Got Talent, she couldn’t believe it was real.  “It was like an out-of-body experience. I felt amazing, but I was really in a state of shock,” said the College of Staten Island (CSI) senior.  

When the news had settled, Samantha realized that she had an opportunity to share her experiences as a CSI student with a disability as she celebrated her amazing accomplishment. Samantha was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) at a young age and continues to struggle with learning, focus, organization, and anxiety.

“Having a disability like ADD makes it harder to achieve my academic and creative goals, but I stay positive and do not listen to negative critiques. I’ve encountered people who say if you have ADD, you can’t be smart and you will not be successful, but this is just not true. You can be a doctor, a dancer, or anything you want to be in life,” Samantha commented, adding that she believes it is necessary to let people know that she is a successful person who does have a disability.

“I think its important that I get the message out there because it shows that no matter what obstacles you encounter, you can be a leader in your own way,” said the student, who sang the Star Spangled Banner at this year’s Honor’s Convocation.

Samantha attributes much of her academic success to the Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) where she receives services and accommodations such as academic counseling and a distraction-limited testing environment. 

“The Center has helped me to stay responsible and calm. Staff there have given me the confidence to not be afraid, to let my professors know about my disability, and to believe in myself,” noted Samantha, who also receives tutoring in the Center. 

Samantha and two other finalists competed in the second annual CSI’s Got Talent on April 18.  Her prize was a check for $2,500, some of which she shyly admits she has already spent on a guitar. She said that the rest will go toward her education, but the guitar was a must have. 

“It’s an electric acoustic guitar, and I named her Etta James after my favorite blues singer,” said the student, a long-time singer and songwriter who is very passionate about her musical endeavors.  Her band, Safe and Sound, is an all-girl group that play acoustic cover songs as well as originals.

Music, however, is not her only pursuit.  The 22 year old is a Business major with a concentration in Marketing and plans to attend graduate school at the Fashion Institute of Technology or the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, both in NYC, after she graduates from CSI in January 2014.  Her career goal is to work in merchandising and to always have time to sing in a band.

She is also grateful to many of her CSI professors, including a noteworthy professor, Laura Farrell, in the CSI Business Department.  “She didn’t look at me as someone with a disability, and she was incredibly helpful with things like one on one tutoring, Samantha said”

Samantha’s winning song at CSI’s Got Talent was “Blues Is My Middle Name,” an original song that she composed herself. The student acknowledged that the cash prize was simply a piece of her winnings that day. “I won money, but I also won friends. The finalists, the crew, and the staff at Student Life were so supportive of me, and that really made the experience worth the practice and the effort.”

The CSA is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

To learn more about ADD and ADHD, please visit www.add.org

Center for Student Accessibility Presents at 2012 AHEAD Conference

Students participate in the CSA Summer Institute, a component of the First-Year Connections Program presented at the AHEAD conference.

This summer, Center for Student for Accessibility (CSA) Director Chris Cruz Cullari presented at the national conference of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) in New Orleans, LA. AHEAD is the premiere national organization guiding most effective methods for disability service provision in higher education. Many of the Center’s programs are based on standards developed by AHEAD.

Cullari’s two presentations focused on the CSA’s First-Year Connections program for new students with disabilities and also the concept of Instructional Universal Design – the philosophy that learning strategies that work for students with disabilities can work for all students.

During a three-hour preconference session “First-Year Connections: Holistic Student Support Programming for Students with Disabilities,” Cruz Cullari focused on the Center’s First-Year Connections (FYC) Program, which celebrated 90% retention last year. The Connections Program helps students to transition into the college and is guided by four desired learning outcomes. Academic counselors meet with students regularly and report to the Director and Assistant Director on the progress and needs of each student. The Program is highlighted by the CSA Summer Institute, a series of full-day workshops that introduce incoming first-year students to such crucial topics as the differences between high school and college, and choosing a major. The FYC culminates in a campus-wide student panel event, entitled “My Story,” in which a group of students with disabilities describe their challenges and triumphs in high school and college. Panelists also focus on their transitioning experiences into college.

In another session, “Curricular Universal Design: Creating Accessible Writing Assignments for Students with Invisible Disabilities,” participants learned how to prepare a collaborative curriculum project with faculty and staff at their respective institutions in the spirit of Universal Design.  This session also looked specifically at efforts like Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), a collaborative endeavor on which Center staff worked with the English Writing Fellows and Professor Hildegard Hoeller. In particular, the session showcased one of the collaborative WAC publications, a faculty guide for introducing writing assignments.

“It was really a great experience, and I’m pleased that AHEAD gave us the venue to showcase our work,” commented Cruz Cullari, who has been the Director since December 2009.  Assistant CSA Director Sara Paul also played a key role in drafting the conference proposals as well as in the creation and management of these initiatives.

Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. A. Ramona Brown commented, “The Center for Student Accessibility is a dynamic department within the College of Staten Island providing resources and support to students with disabilities. CSI serves the largest number of students with Asperger Syndrome in the CUNY system. I commend Director Chris Cullari Cruz and his exceptional staff for providing a structured, supportive environment in which students can develop the necessary skills to ensure their future success.”

CSA staff look forward to submitting proposals to present at the 2013 AHEAD Conference next year slated for Baltimore, MD.

The CSA is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Kindness in the Community: Center for Student Accessibility Receives Donation from North Shore Rotary

The North Shore Rotary has recently presented the CSI CSA with $500 to support the Center's work with students with ASDs.

Staten Island’s North Shore Rotary makes charitable donations to many local schools and organizations. This year, the group focused on helping individuals affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). As the Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) at the College of Staten Island (CSI) serves approximately 80 students with ASDs, Rotary Club President Anthony Diodato awarded the CSA a check for $500 after learning about the challenges that the Center faces.

“I am extremely grateful to the Rotary members for this donation and for all the work they do. This organization models what it means to work civically and collaboratively in a community,” noted Chris Cruz Cullari, Director of the CSA.

The collaboration began in the spring when CSI Communications Director Ken Bach, a long-time Rotary member, invited representatives from the CSA as guest speakers at a Rotary meeting to discuss the Center’s work with students with Asperger’s Syndrome. CSI graduate student Marybeth Melendez and CSA Assistant Director Sara Paul attended and formally detailed the Center’s efforts in working with these students; the Center’s efforts include faculty collaboration, tutoring, academic counseling, campus-wide workshops, and technology support.

“North Shore Rotary is honored to assist the students and staff of the Center for Student Accessibility,” commented Diodato, who now serves as immediate past president of the club. “The Center is an asset to our community and I commend them on the many valuable services they provide to students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as the hundreds of other students that benefit from their comprehensive services.”

“When students on the Autism Spectrum enter college, they typically require a substantial level of support. At the Center for Student Accessibility, they receive that support by staff members who are trained to work closely with this population,” noted Sara Paul, adding that the CSA is currently experiencing an increased enrollment of students with more complex accommodation needs.

Melendez, a graduate student at CSI in the Mental Health Counseling Program, an alumna of the College, and a student who is blind, commented on the Center’s services and accommodations that benefit students with ASDs as well as all students registered there. “If it were not for the Center for Student Accessibility, I would not have graduated. The staff there assisted me in technology training, they worked with my professors, and they provided me with the tools I needed to succeed. With the growing number of students with Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, the staff continues to work hard and learn more about how to best serve these wonderful and challenging students,” said Melendez, who worked in the Center as an Events Coordinator when she was an undergraduate student. She is currently participating in an internship in the Department of Sociology.

The Center will use the donated funds to expand its initiatives to improve outcomes for students with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.