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Portrait of Maura Gunter ’19

Learning across abilities

The Center for Learning and Accessible Student Services champions students with a broad range of disabilities on the path to academic success.

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Since second grade, Maura Gunter ’19 relied on accommodations for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a word processing disorder. So when she started college, Gunter knew the drill. But on her way to class that fall semester, Gunter’s vision blurred and a metallic taste coated her mouth. She lay in the snow for four hours before paramedics arrived. When she woke, doctors greeted the then 19-year-old with another diagnosis: epilepsy.

As her peers at Colorado State University prepped for finals, Gunter was pricked and scanned for two weeks. Catch up, you can do this. Seizure. Someone stuffs a wallet in her mouth. Doctors: “Episodes might pass or might not. Try this medicine—no, this one.” Catch up, you can do this. Seizure. Hospital stay, stares, and bruises. “You need to find a way to complete assignments, Maura.” Can I do this? Brain throbbing. More pills. Less sleep. No.

“When I started having seizures, I didn’t know [my illness] was considered a disability. Support services at my college at the time were fine but not personal. I didn’t have an advisor to help me navigate my college education with this invisible illness,” Gunter said. “So, nearly every time I had a seizure, I had to medically withdraw.”

“I felt like such a failure—lost and alone”

Without campus advocates and close teacher relationships, Gunter turned to doctor-prescribed opioids for support and became addicted. She found Augsburg University’s StepUP® Program—a residential recovery support community—and decided to transfer in 2015. Disability Specialist Anne Lynch was there to greet her, then walk the Georgia native through her rights and responsibilities, documentation forms, exam scheduling, and more. When Gunter made the dean’s list, Lynch was the first person she called.

“Anne has been my rock,” said Gunter, who plans to graduate in May with a degree in social work. “When people cautioned me against seeking departmental honors because they were worried ‘it’d be too much for me,’ Anne pushed me. She lets me determine and define my own limits. People don’t realize that it’s as equally stressful
and offensive to be coddled as it is to not be believed and supported. Anne took the time to know me, to listen, and to empower me with information and guidance.”

Sober since August 2014, Gunter thrived with newfound campus advocates and with caring professors at Augsburg’s tight-knit, affirming campus. Driving that advocacy and service is the university’s Center for Learning and Accessible Student Services, known as CLASS, where Lynch has worked for 20 years.

The center’s influence is woven throughout every aspect of Augsburg: CLASS informs administrative policies, advises on housing accommodations, monitors updates to the physical campus, and ensures students’ dietary requirements are met. They offer professional development across campus, introduce assistive technologies, and meet one-on-one with professors about universal course design.

Disability specialists connect with parents, meet regularly with students, and coordinate a range of accommodations—from exam and tutor scheduling to notetakers and sign language interpreters. The office serves those who need temporary accommodations, including injured student-athletes, and engages in community outreach and education. CLASS maintains a robust website with links to programs, software, and apps for anyone to access.

When Lynch started in the late ’90s, she worked with about 30 students. Now, that number is 100.

“It’s been amazing to see Augsburg embrace diversity and grow the reach and reputation of this critical office,” Lynch said. “CLASS empowers the students we serve, but our work also informs and inspires faculty, other students, and the communities in which we live and work. It’s a gift to see employers, faculty, parents, and even the students themselves shed misconceptions about disabilities after working with our office.”

Lynch calls herself a partner. She spends her days partnering intentionally with each student—to listen, to solve problems alongside them, and to empower them to better understand themselves and their abilities.

“‘Disability’ is not a bad word; it is tied to rights and protections,” she said. “I love when students get to a place where they can say, ‘Yes, I have a disability, but I am not a disability.’ Let’s move beyond the word and come up with solutions for making sure all students have the same opportunities afforded to others.”

“‘Disability’ is not a bad word”

Although her focus is on students, Lynch said the office invests a tremendous amount of time and energy in partnering with the campus community to ensure Augsburg meets its commitment to provide equal access to higher education and campus facilities. Among CLASS’s greatest collaborations is with Augsburg’s Center for Wellness and Counseling.

CWC Assistant Director Beth Carlson said that with the strong connection between mental health and academic success, CWC staff have found their work with CLASS invaluable in helping students thrive. CLASS is distinct, Carlson said, in its deep connections with students and collaborative, creative approaches to overcoming complex situations.

“Many students who are academically capable might not be able to graduate from Augsburg if they didn’t have the support of CLASS. In the past, a student with a significant mental health disability may not have been encouraged to go to college; now, our campus is much richer and more diverse because we’re embracing all of our students, supporting them as they gain a liberal arts education and contribute their wisdom to solving the problems of the world.”

A 2018 report from the American Collegiate Health Association indicated that in the past year, three out of five college students experienced “overwhelming anxiety,” and two out of five students were “too depressed to function.” With increased stressors and public services cutbacks, Carlson said, Augsburg has rallied to strengthen safety nets.

“We strongly believe in helping students put together teams of support so they can navigate college successfully. For students with a mental health or other disability, CLASS is part of that team,” Carlson said. “Augsburg is blessed with faculty who ‘get’ mental health issues and want to support their students and advisees. Together, we help students feel connected on campus, and that sense of connection can increase students’ likelihood of success.”

CLASS Director Kathy McGillivray said this focus on “together” is what distinguishes Augsburg and draws students to study and grow alongside the support of CLASS’s comprehensive services.

“Our focus is on each individual student,” McGillivray said. “But we are part of a larger mission to connect Augsburg students to academic support, resources, and services that will help them create and achieve their educational goals. Prospective students see that seamless student support, all housed within the Gage Center for Student Success.”

Within the Gage Center, CLASS includes the Groves Accommodations Lab, which provides assistive technology and testing accommodations for students with disabilities, and the Groves Technology Center, which is a fully equipped computer lab that is available to all students. Resources for students with disabilities are offered within a suite of services for all.

Augsburg’s team approach weaves a strong safety net

Matthew Glaven ’21 has built a team at Augsburg. The history major serves on the board of Augsburg’s chapter of Women for Political Change, manages the baseball team, and has traveled overseas with fellow Auggies. CLASS is a major player on “Team Glaven,” given that the Minnesota native is deaf/hard of hearing and has cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for him to write and speak.

“One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned at Augsburg is that you need to have a team, no matter who you are, to get through life. As your life goes through different stages, your team of personal and professional supporters evolves with you,” said Glaven, who uses ASL interpreters, a microphone for his hearing aids, notetakers, and testing accommodations. “CLASS also taught me that advocacy is key to getting what you need to make your life better. If you don’t advocate for yourself, you won’t be as successful.”

That embrace of advocacy will serve him well as he plans to enter public office. The Queen fan and BBC-listening cat lover is driven to improve public health care, protect minorities, and continue to fight climate change, among other initiatives.

Matthew Glaven ’21 studying in a CLASS work roomFaculty advocates embrace universal design

Glaven gained that passion for policy from instructors who were eager to make lectures and content accessible—educators like Rich Flint, assistant professor of mathematics, who teaches core math courses required of all students. In Spring 2009, Flint taught a pre-algebra course of 24 students, 10 of whom had documented disabilities.

“If I hadn’t known the CLASS staff before that semester, I got to know them all very well that spring,” Flint said. “We now give all of our students a Math Anxiety Bill of Rights, which includes statements like, ‘I have the right to need extra help,’ and ‘I have the right to not understand.’ Many of us [math professors] include statements about relaxation on our exams. In fact, yesterday I proctored a Calculus 2 exam for a colleague that stated: ‘Relax. You have done problems like this before.’ Without our work with CLASS, I don’t know if we would be so attuned to using straightforward strategies that benefit all test takers.”

Professor of Mathematics Suzanne Dorée said the department’s embrace of universal design is a habit that emerged from experience. Dorée has taught Auggies for 30 years. When she started, parents sometimes needed to attend classes to assist their children. Now, because of the resources and accommodations Augsburg has to offer, students are able to enjoy more independence, Dorée said.

“I love a good problem, and there’s an element of creativity required in adjusting my teaching style to reach all my students. Over time you realize that the new practices you adopt are good for all students. For instance, I had a student who was blind so I began narrating everything I was doing on the board. It slowed me down but I noticed that all my students were processing the information better,” she said. “The difference between a 50-minute test and a 70-minute test’s ability to assess student learning is not significant, so I always write a 50-minute test for my 70-minute classes. English learners, students who didn’t get much sleep the night before, and students with test
anxiety all appreciate the extra time to check their work.”

The paw-fect solution

That problem-solving can take many forms. During Gunter’s freshman year, it barked and was named Gus.

Gus was Gunter’s service dog. He was trained to sense when Gunter might have a seizure and assist her if and when she fell. His vest detailed her diagnosis, which was helpful since doctors previously missed her medical ID bracelet three times, Gunter said, while “Gus was tough to miss.”

“Was,” because Gunter hasn’t needed a service dog since identifying the proper blend of medicine, sleep, and support. The 24-year-old has been seizure-free for the past year, and Gus has enjoyed the time off to play with Gunter’s three other four-legged pals: Nelson, Susan, and Shana. Each of her pups, other than Gus, is a rescue with “some special needs,” Gunter adds, proudly.

Health and stability, Gunter said, means she can set her sights on the horizon— toward research and graduate school. Lars Christiansen, associate professor of sociology, is collaborating with Gunter on research about street equity, city planning, and movement. This semester, Gunter is focused on roadside memorial ghost bikes, which are white-painted bikes placed near streets not safe or accessible to cyclists. She received travel funds to present her findings at the Midwest Sociological Society’s annual meeting in Chicago.

“Augsburg gave me the tools and space to figure out my passion, understand my responsibilities, and advocate for my rights. A world that felt small years ago now seems open and exciting.”

Matthew Glaven ’21 in front of the entrace of the CLASS Groves LabsAugsburg’s leading approach to disability services didn’t just happen. Paired with staff expertise and an inclusive campus culture, it took the vision and support of proud parents, alumni, and industry partners. Auggie mom and Regent Emerita Barbara Gage, who served on Augsburg’s Board of Regents for 12 years, led the charge to uplift Augsburg as a national leader in holistic student support services.

In the 1980s, Barbara and her husband, Skip Gage, along with the Carlson Family Foundation, donated and raised funds to support the program that ultimately became CLASS. In 2011, the Gage Family Foundation and the Carlson Family Foundation contributed $900,000 to create the Gage Center for Student Success.

This centralized, supportive learning space in the James G. Lindell Library provides resources for all students—regardless of learning style, preference, or need. It houses the Office of Advising and Academic Excellence, TRIO/Student Support Services, and CLASS.

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