Students with Disabilities Reach Out to High Schoolers

Julia Williams, junior at UT and member of the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance

When Julia Williams was a high school student in Nashville, she aspired to study science in college. But with her diagnosis of ADHD, she wondered about the unique challenges she might encounter and didn’t know who to turn to for answers.

Today students like Williams, now a junior in microbiology at UT, can find those answers by turning to groups like the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance, which aims to improve the success of students with disabilities in the STEM disciplines.

At a Meet-Greet-&-Eat event held last week at the L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, Williams and other members from the STEM Alliance chatted over pizza and cookies with  high school students with disabilities who are interested in the STEM fields. The UT students shared tips and resources based on their own experiences in navigating STEM majors on the college campus. UT faculty and staff who work with students with disabilities also attended and shared resources. About 20 high schoolers attended.

“This event was really empowering for our students,” said Lucinda Parramore, Special Education Department Chair at the L&N STEM Academy. “The UT students shared very insightful, personal, and realistic stories about their own experiences in college and how it relates to their disability. For a student with a disability, having peers here talking with them, being honest about their experiences, was encouraging and really lends credibility.”

After the meeting, Parramore said that a parent of one of the high school students told her that the meeting was particularly inspirational for her son. Prior to the meeting, the student had worried a lot about his ability to succeed in college, but hearing from college students was inspirational and showed a path toward success.

Williams has been involved in the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance since she was sophomore at UT and says it has been a invaluable resource in learning how to advocate for herself. The group has also helped her know her rights around disclosing her disability and for getting learning accommodations based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. She said it is something she wished she had available to her when she was in high school considering taking on a difficult college major.

“I didn’t know anything about what to expect. It was hard to find any information or who to talk to. Some people even discouraged me from going into microbiology, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” Williams said.

The UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance also provides scholarship funds to students. Usually meeting bi-weekly throughout the semester, the group holds discussions with speakers on professional development topics, such as careers, resume writing, mentorship, graduate schools and internships. The group also has informal gatherings to share ideas and provide support.

Due the success of last week’s meeting, Parramore hopes to have more meetings with the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance and expand it to other Knoxville schools that focus on STEM. She also aspires to develop a mentor program with the college students.

“Having older peers share so openly about their disabilities with the high school students is really empowering. They help mitigate concerns [that the high schoolers] might have about how to succeed in college and help them know about what support is out there,” Parramore said.

Representatives from the Knox County Schools system also attended the Meet-Eat-&-Greet at L&N, including Mike Scripa who works with students with disabilities throughout Knox County. Scripa found the meeting beneficial.

“I was impressed by the maturity of the members of the support group. Their message was empowering and relatable,” he said. “I felt that it provided our students with clarity regarding the importance of seeking helpful relationships in support of their transition goals, regardless of their disability.”

If you or someone you know might be interested in becoming involved with the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance, visit its website for more information or contact advisor Suzanne Lenhart (slenhart@tennessee.edu) or NIMBioS Education Coordinator Greg Wiggins (wiggybug@nimbios.org).

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