I first heard of Spoonie Alliance — a club for Pitzer College students with disabilities — while attending Pitzer’s virtual Diversity Program for admitted students in April 2020. A quick Google search to learn more about Spoonie Alliance then introduced me to the 5C-wide Disability, Illness and Difference Alliance, or DIDA. Finally, an affinity space dedicated to disability!
My initial excitement to join these clubs as a disabled person declined when I discovered that Spoonie Alliance no longer existed, as all of the members had graduated in 2020. However, during the virtual 5C Turf Dinner, I did stumble upon Disability Community and Validating Relationships, or DISCOVR, a new student-run club at Pomona College that hopes to become an institutionally backed mentor program for students with disabilities.
Pomona officially offers 10 affinity mentor programs, such as FLI Scholars and the Office of Black Student Affairs’ peer mentorship program. Notably absent is a disability-based mentor program. After some searching, I found that none of the other Claremont Colleges offer it either. As a disabled person and a member of DISCOVR, I wholeheartedly believe that a program specifically for students with disabilities is necessary to help them succeed in academia and that institutional support will secure the program’s survival.
Similar groups already exist in other schools such as Purdue University and Smith College. Stanford Medicine Abilities Coalition and Medical Students with Disability and Chronic Illness are launching a mentor program for disabled individuals pursuing medicine.
I call on the Pomona administration to make DISCOVR the 11th institutionally backed affinity mentor program. Doing so could ensure the club’s longevity by increasing its reach and financial capabilities — subsequently benefitting generations of students with disabilities.
Along with assisting disabled students in navigating the physical, social and academic landscape of the 5Cs, DISCOVR’s existing mentorship aims to educate members by discussing disability issues, history and identity. Underclassmen are placed in small groups led by upperclassmen mentors based on similar backgrounds, disabilities and interests.
“Through cultivating relationships with disabled peers and upperclassmen, students can develop disability pride and appreciation for the disabled experience,” their student sign-up form reads.
Since my diagnosis with ADHD and autism, I have always approached the next stage of my life with apprehension. While academic accommodations help, they do not solve all disability issues. There must be a group that furthers belonging for disabled students. While DIDA does create a social space for these students, mentoring is another important aspect of belonging that is not within DIDA’s scope, as it is with DISCOVR.
Disabled students often run into ableism on campus. In an interview with TSL, DISCOVR co-founder Izabella Davis PO ’22 said people have said things that hurt her self-esteem, particularly mentions of her appearance or accusations that she takes advantage of accommodations. A mentor who was also disabled, she said, would have been a great role model to help her navigate issues like ableism, administration and the accommodations process.
In her first year at the 5Cs, DISCOVR co-founder Aleja Hertzler-McCain PO ’21 met Arielle Davis PZ ’18, the founder of Spoonie Alliance who had the same disability as Hertzler-McCain does, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.
“I can’t overstate how important she was for my freshman year,” Hertzler-McCain said.
For co-founder Rachel Howard PO ’22, a disability group would have mitigated her concerns about social life at the 5Cs during her first year. “Given my low vision, it’s really challenging to see people on campus, to determine who people are and find people in dining halls,” she said. “I think it would have been really helpful to have another group of people who don’t necessarily have the exact same challenges, but who get that these are challenges that I have.”
Indeed, being able to connect with other disabled students at DISCOVR has greatly benefitted me, even if we don’t have the same disability. While not every member can fully understand my specific struggles, I feel more comfortable around DISCOVR members because they know what it is like to be overlooked in spaces that aren’t as informed about disability as they are about identities such as race, gender and sexuality. Additionally, my personal experience with disability is limited to neurodivergence. DISCOVR has increased my awareness of other disabilities by helping me to get to know the people who have them.
One might wonder why DISCOVR can’t just remain a student-run club. Adding DISCOVR to the list of institutionally backed mentor programs would increase its visibility, particularly for first-year students and prospective students. For instance, DISCOVR would be listed on Pomona’s page dedicated to peer mentoring programs.
It would thus make recruiting new students significantly easier and ensure DISCOVR continues to thrive even after current members graduate.
Second, institutional backing could provide more funds to DISCOVR, enabling DISCOVR to fund more events, pay visiting speakers and host other initiatives supporting disabled students.
According to Howard, head mentors would also receive a stipend, as several other mentor programs do. If head mentor positions remain unpaid in the future, this could turn away people from applying to become head mentors if they need a source of income. Paying mentors would make the work accessible to all students.
In an email to TSL, Dean of Students Avis Hinkson said Pomona has provided institutional support for DISCOVR, but cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason the club could not launch a mentor program backed by the college. She mentioned that less than 18 months ago, Pomona created a full-time director of accessibility resources and services position to connect disabled students with accommodations and resources.
“[My colleagues and I] have met with members to discuss their interest in starting a mentoring group and have shared with them that while it is not possible in the midst of a pandemic, we can certainly review our programming after we are able to return students back to campus and we are functioning in our ‘new normal,’” Hinkson said.
In response, I asked what the COVID-19 pandemic specifically and logistically prevents the administration from doing in order to turn DISCOVR into an official mentoring program. Hinkson did not immediately respond to comment.
The administration may already be considering helping launch a DISCOVR mentor program, but I’d like to offer a perspective they may have not considered as fully.
The COVID-19 pandemic is all the more reason to create a mentor group centered on disability. Individuals with disabilities have also been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. Patients with underlying conditions are 12 times more likely to die of COVID-19. The pandemic has also affected the academic success of many disabled students, who cannot access the resources they may have relied on while on campus.
The brunt of the difficulty falls on disabled first-years who must learn to navigate their first year of college, an already challenging transition in normal circumstances. Hence, I believe support for disabled students is particularly necessary during this time. Pomona’s priorities during the pandemic must reflect this.
There is still a lot of work that must be done to dismantle ableism at the 5Cs. However, I believe that the presence of DISCOVR serves as a valuable resource for students with disabilities.
Giving institutional support to DISCOVR is a step in the right direction because it also gives institutional support to students with disabilities beyond accommodations, which is needed more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. I strongly urge everyone to support making DISCOVR an official mentor program at Pomona.
Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is a member of DISCOVR from Los Angeles, California. While she doesn’t attend Pomona, DISCOVR co-founders welcomed her in. As a premed student, she also frequently attends meetings at Stanford Medicine Abilities Coalition, which also welcomes members who are not otherwise affiliated with Stanford University.