Natalie Suprise used to help her younger sister Emily open containers, do her hair, and complete other tasks that can be tricky for people with cerebral palsy.
Now that she is at Virginia Tech, the Vienna, Va., native has found a new way to help people who have disabilities. She is one of many students to participate in the volunteer note-taker program run by Services for Students with Disabilities, part of the Division of Student Affairs.
Suprise, a senior majoring in marketing in the Pamplin College of Business, has made her notes from four classes available to students with disabilities that entitle them to that accommodation under federal law.
She learned of the service opportunity her first semester in Blacksburg, when an accounting professor announced that a student in the class needed copies of notes.
“My sister sometimes has trouble trying to focus on the class and take notes at the same time, so when they needed someone to volunteer it just made sense for me,” Suprise said.
During the 2010-11 school year, 178 volunteers fulfilled 232 requests for notes, according to the office that runs the service. The office uses the university’s Scholar online course environment to confidentially distribute notes to the proper students.
A survey of volunteers indicated the main reason students participate is a desire to help their peers, but there are more tangible benefits for note-takers as well, said Kelly Woodward, the program coordinator.
Students often cite their participation on resumes. The hours they volunteer – time they should spend in class anyway – can fulfill the service requirements for student organizations. Volunteers often say that knowing somebody else relies on their notes provides an extra incentive to attend classes and pay close attention.
“Pretty much every volunteer surveyed said being a note-taker increased their attendance in class and their note taking had improved,” said Woodward, whose job includes reviewing volunteers’ notes to make sure they are done well and delivered on time.
Statistics on the grade-point average of volunteers are not kept, but faculty members are asked to recruit responsible, high-achieving students.
Logan Patterson, a sophomore from Roanoke, Va., shared notes from his general chemistry class in fall 2010.
“I thought it was a cool idea to help somebody out, and it helped me make sure I went to class and did my work,” said Patterson, who earned an A in the class and has two majors, chemical engineering within the College of Engineering and biochemistry within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“A majority of the students we help have attention deficit disorder, psychological disabilities, or other challenges that are not visible,” said Services for Students with Disabilities Director Susan Angle. “We also protect the anonymity of those we serve. So note-takers truly are helping people they don’t ever meet.”
The law requires universities to provide equal access to class material, which can include notes for students with certain disabilities. Some schools pay note-takers. Virginia Tech has always been able fulfill its obligation with help from volunteers, for which officials credit the strong culture of service at the university.
“I think students try to look for community service projects because they truly embrace the term Ut Prosim,” Angle said, referring to the university motto, Latin for “That I May Serve.”
Volunteering has been a regular part of Amir-Arsalan Safaai-Jazi’s life since the eighth grade, when he fulfilled a civics class requirement by helping at the public library in his hometown of Blacksburg, Va. He continued to volunteer there throughout high school and also volunteered as a canteen officer for the American Red Cross. Since arriving at Virginia Tech, the junior, who is majoring in biological sciences within the College of Science, has shared notes from at least one class each semester.
“I thought it was essential to continue my volunteer service from high school,” Safaai-Jazi said. “Although it would be in a different setting and different format, this [program] was a new way that I could contribute.”
Meet one of the many students who have helped peers and learn more about the note-taker program in this video.
Students who rely on the note-taker program may have impaired vision or hearing, physical disabilities, temporary injuries, or attention-and-processing disabilities. A student must provide documentation of a disability to receive assistance through any program run by Services for Students with Disabilities.
Students with disabilities must meet the same admissions criteria as other Virginia Tech applicants. About half the students assisted by Services for Students with Disabilities were not diagnosed until after they arrived at Virginia Tech.
The office offers an online guide for faculty. It provides information on how to test students with disabilities in a fair, equitable, and inclusive manner.
Services for Students with Disabilities is building a database of students willing to share their notes with classmates who qualify for the assistance. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Officials estimate volunteer note-takers provided 7,000 hours of service during the 2010-11 school year, up 35 percent from 5,200 hours in 2009-10.
Lee and Regina Steeneck, members of the class of 1970, made a generous gift to support programs for students with disabilities at Virginia Tech.
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