Bulletin News

Students with Disabilities Share Experiences at College Forum


SUNY Cortland sophomore Skye Malik knows firsthand that dyslexia doesn’t have to stop people from reaching their goals.

As a high school student, Malik founded The Paco Project, named for her grandfather, Leo “Paco” Corey, who is dyslexic. Corey didn’t finish high school and never attended college but joined the Navy and went on to become a superintendent for the New England Power Company. The Paco Project raises money for Learning Ally, a non-profit organization that serves those who cannot read due to blindness, dyslexia or other disabilities.

An early childhood/childhood education major from New York City, Malik, like her grandfather, is dyslexic. She is a passionate advocate for empowering those who may struggle to read. She and junior criminology and Spanish dual major Jose Benitez of Bronx, N.Y., visited Grant Middle School in Syracuse on March 24 to speak with eighth graders who have disabilities, encouraging those students to pursue a college education.

Benitez and Malik were guest speakers at Grant Middle School’s fifth annual college forum. They shared their academic experiences and discussed how they’ve coped with disabilities while succeeding in school.

“The best thing about going to the college forum at Grant Middle School was definitely having the opportunity to help young children realize that they can and should go to college,” Malik said. “I never had anything like that when I was younger. I had to discover all of it on my own.”

Heather Young is a special education teacher at Grant Middle School. She started the college forum in 2013 to prepare students for their transition to high school while also getting them to think about the possibilities beyond. As high schools and colleges increasingly do more to make education accessible for students with disabilities, Young has invited local college students to share their stories with their younger counterparts. 

“As a middle school teacher for the last 15 years, I have seen kids go to high school and lose hope,” Young said. “My purpose was for the kids to see what services are available so they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have been so happy to see my relationships with the local colleges grow. This year Cortland students returned and as always left a lasting impression on my students.”

Students from Le Moyne College, Onondaga Community College, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Syracuse University also have participated at the college forum in previous years.

Malik has used audio recordings of textbooks to keep up with her schoolwork. Learning Ally provided Malik with recordings that helped her in her middle and high school studies and SUNY Cortland’s Student Disability Services has provided similar support. That academic assistance has helped Malik thrive in a brand-new environment.

That’s what she told the eighth grade students at the college forum. Malik thanks the staff and faculty who have helped her learn in alternate ways and encourages the next generation of college students to seek out similar opportunities. 

“I think my mom was more nervous about me going to college, but I was nervous too,” Malik said. “(In high school) I did have all the tools and strategies of how to get my work done, but if I really needed help, my mom was still always right there. But at college, I knew she wasn't going to be anymore. Luckily, Cortland has been incredibly helpful. The biggest thing they do for me is providing me with my books in a format that is accessible to me. If I didn't have that, I would not be able to succeed.”

Benitez has received similar academic support in college and was glad to tell middle school students that places like SUNY Cortland will be able to help them with their schoolwork as well.

“Cortland has provided me with a large variety of methods to succeed like providing me with laptops and text to speech programs,” he said. “Cortland has also provided me with a great team that includes Mrs. Ute Gomez, the coordinator of Student Disability Services, and Jeremy Zhe-Heimerman, the coordinator of test administration services. I appreciate them very much and highly recommended them to students that are looking for colleges with great disability services.”

Zhe-Heimerman, SUNY Cortland’s coordinator of assistive technology and test administration services, helps provide text-to-speech services and training to students on campus. Zhe-Heimerman also attended the college forum at Grant Middle School. He is proud to see students like Malik and Benitez shine in the college classroom and also in a middle school setting in front of newly-empowered students. 

“They’re excellent speakers and they engage with students,” Zhe-Heimerman said. “They’re excellent models for the students. I always enjoy going to the forum because it’s great to see the eighth graders get so much out of seeing someone like them who is succeeding in college. It’s also great to see our students get an opportunity to be role models for those students and be leaders.”

For more information, visit SUNY Cortland’s Student Disabilities Services online.