New Fund Encourages Learning with Ability, Not Disability

M&M campaign organized by AUC's Office of Student Support to raise awareness on learning disabilities
M&M campaign organized by AUC's Office of Student Support to raise awareness on learning disabilities

A dyslexic student, Ahmed constantly struggled in school and took private lessons in almost every subject. When he joined AUC, he found the University to be a safe haven. His English teacher first referred him to the Office of Student Support due to his poor spelling. With its mentoring and support services, the office helped him through a number of academic accommodations that included untimed tests where heavy reading and writing skills were required, use of instructional CDs or software to compensate for slow fluency and not being penalized for spelling mistakes. Working hard to achieve his goals and consistently using the mentoring services provided by the University, he graduated with a bachelor’s in political science with a GPA of 2.9. 

Like Ahmed, there are currently 18 AUC students diagnosed with a learning disability who are registered at the Office of Student Support and have been professionally assessed by the University. There are also more than 40 students using the services provided by the Office of Student Support, but who refuse to be officially registered. Through the generosity of Rania Ismail ’95, strategy manager at Leisure and Entertainment, AUC established the Ismail Fund for Students with Learning Disabilities to expand the services provided and ensure that students can make the most of their time at AUC. 

“This gift is such a blessing because it has allowed us to tailor our efforts toward these students,” said Alexandra Gazis, assistant director for student disability services at the Office of Student Support. “We don’t want them to struggle throughout their years at AUC.” 

The fund has enabled AUC to launch the I Can initiative, a three-year plan catering to the needs of students with learning disabilities through personal growth opportunities, group support, yearly plans and essential software. “We already offer a lot of support to students, but with the new fund, we asked what can we give differently? What other dimensions can we include?” explained Gazis. “We have services and academic support, but we need a more tailored program for students with disabilities.”

In addition to the customized I Can initiative, the fund has also made it possible for a psychologist who is an expert in learning disabilities to be available for students, in addition to a licensed assessor, who evaluates students, makes recommendations and helps them develop a detailed plan that includes steps to achieve personal, academic and social goals. The office is also working on acquiring more sophisticated software with multiple licenses to benefit more than one student simultaneously. “Most issues fall within writing, spelling and reading,” Gazis said. “We need software to assist students in finishing exams or assignments within the time limit of the class.” 

Although students with a learning disability have average intellectual abilities, they face difficulties in how they learn. “Students with learning disabilities don’t only need academic support, but also social and personal support,” said Gazis, adding that learning disabilities are usually discreet and include disorders like dysgraphia, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

What complicates matters is that students suffering from a learning disability are reluctant to come forward and ask for the required support. To combat the stigma and discrimination of mental health challenges, the Office of Student Support is vigilant about holding workshops and awareness sessions for the entire AUC community. Not only do these sessions shed light on the different types of mental health issues, they also educate students, faculty and staff on how best to help people who are struggling with learning disabilities. 

“AUC is one of the first universities in the Middle East to have an office specifically for students with disabilities,” Gazis pointed out. “In Egypt, I can see other universities looking to us as an example and recognizing that yes, there are students with disabilities and trying to see what they can do to help them in their academic careers. Our aim is to create a campus environment where students are viewed on the basis of ability rather than disability.”