The new director of Disability Services, Jodi Rachins, didn’t start her college career intending to help people with disabilities.
“Most of us who end up in this field have accidentally wandered over here,” she says.
For Rachins, that accidental journey began after she graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Maryland. She had initially planned to become a marriage and family therapist, so she got a job as an aide in group homes for children and teens who were under the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.
She soon started a master’s degree program at Lesley University in professional counseling. While studying, she took a job in Lesley’s Threshold Program, a non-degree residential program for young adults with moderate to severe disabilities. Rachins helped them work on social, vocational and independent living skills.
After graduating as a licensed mental health counselor, she worked as school counselor at the Learning Prep School, a K-12 school for children with moderate to severe learning disabilities. She also started a small private practice counseling teens and adults with disabilities.
She soon realized that she missed working with college students – and that she was more interested in action than in talk therapy.
“I always gravitated toward students who were gaining their own voice, and I realized that’s what really matters to me, because from high school to college, the script completely flips from when your parents would sit down with people at your school and advocate for your education and accommodations,” she says. “When you get to college, you’re your own guardian, and you have to learn to advocate for yourself if you’re going to achieve success.”
Rachins worked at Brandeis University as a disability specialist, and then at Merrimack College, where she was founding director of the Accessibility Services Office.
Recently, she found herself wanting to “get back to the roots of public institutions that I believe in” because they help students from widely divergent backgrounds to achieve a better life.
“I want to support that kind of student who wants to achieve success, no matter what it takes,” she says.
She joined UML’s “amazing” Disability Services staff in November 2021, as they were working hard to help students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During COVID-19 and online learning, high schools were struggling to serve students with disabilities, so many students have been starting college at a disadvantage,” she says. “We’re racing faster to help them catch up.”
About 11% of UML students are registered with Disability Services, but an estimated 10% more could benefit from some of the services and assistive technology on offer, Rachins says.
“They’re held back by stigma or experiences they might have had at the primary or secondary school level,” she says. “I look at using academic supports as a strength, not a weakness.”
In late 2021, Disability Services became part of Academic Services. Rachins supports the move both because it reduces stigma – disability is not an illness – and because it brings Disability Services to the table with faculty. Likewise, Rachins is seeking new ways to work with staff in other academic support offices.
“I’m looking forward to having partnerships with faculty and staff where they understand that we’re a resource for them as much as for students,” Rachins says. “We’re all on the same team, with the goal of student success.”