Anna McKee, 26, celebrates after graduating this spring from Southern Maine Community College. McKee, who has a learning disability, received help from the college through a program that is now receiving more than $2.6 million in new federal grant money. Courtesy / Anna McKee

SOUTH PORTLAND — For Anna McKee, the benefits of the Student Support Services program at Southern Maine Community College to students with disabilities like her are obvious: without the program, she would not have graduated.

“It made a really huge difference for me,” she said.

But despite battling a nonverbal learning disability and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder McKee, 26, did graduate this spring with an Associate Degree in Liberal Studies.

SMCC earlier this month received more than $2.6 million in new federal grants that will expand the program to help more students like McKee, according to a statement from the college.

“These grants represent investments in our students, in our college and in our state,” said SMCC President Joe Cassidy. “They will allow us to continue to give students the support and guidance they need to achieve academic success and career success after graduation.”

The grant is part of a larger program through the U.S. Department of Education called TRIO. Initially conceived in 1964 as three programs, hence the name, it has expanded to eight, all geared toward assisting students with disabilities, first generation or low-income college students.

While SMCC employs several TRIO programs, the new grant money will help expand the Student Support Services program, which addresses students with disabilities. According to TRIO’s website, money granted to colleges must be used “to provide opportunities for academic development, assist students with basic college requirements, and to motivate students toward the successful completion of their postsecondary education.”

Katharine Lualdi, the director of the program at SMCC, said disabilities could include vision or hearing impairment, chronic medical conditions, students on the autism spectrum, those with mental illnesses and students like McKee, who have learning disabilities.

Lualdi said the need for such a program for students with disabilities is growing. In the 2017-2018 school year alone, she said, there were 541 students, about 9% of the college’s student body, which fit the program’s disability criteria.

“It’s probably as high, if not higher now,” she said.

Right now, Lualdi said, the program can only accommodate 140 students, but first-year students who can’t get into the program qualify for a similar one-year program that SMCC offers on its own. Even still, Lualdi said, students have had to be put on a waiting list in the past. The new grant money, she said, will expand the program’s capacity to 100 students starting on Sept. 1.

The program, in essence, does two things, Lualdi said: first, it acts as a liaison between a student and college staff. If a student with a medical condition, such as cancer, could not attend classes due to chemotherapy sessions, a program counselor will work with instructors to help the student make up for the lost time.

“You need someone to help advocate for you,” Lualdi said.

The other main benefit, she said, involves one-on-one work with a student, either to make sure the student has extra help if a disability is causing the student to fall behind, or to help the student access additional services with the school if needed. Lualdi said the program will bring in an expert to assist a student with a specific learning disability. Technical assistance, such as a speech-to-text system for deaf students to use while viewing recorded lectures, is also available.

McKee said her learning disability makes reading and writing extremely slow for her, which became a huge obstacle once she began pursuing higher education.

“It was making school kind of impossible,” she said.

She first tried to attend classes without assistance at the University of Maine at Orono, but she wound up dropping her classes in 2013. She tried again, at SMCC, taking a few classes in the fall of 2015, again entirely on her own.

She didn’t complete a degree then either, and almost gave up, until she went back to SMCC once more, this time taking part in the program in the spring of 2018. This time, she said, she stuck with it, and credited the program for helping. Program advocates helped her find a job on campus, and got her tutoring to help with her classes.

But, she said, one-on-one interactions with program advisers helped a great deal, too. This spring, when the pandemic forced her to attend classes virtually, she said, Lualdi connected with McKee via teleconferencing software every day, making sure McKee remained organized and on task.

“There was a lot of hands-on work,” McKee said.

Thanks to her success at SMCC, McKee said she has regained the self-confidence she thought she’d lost. She has enrolled in classes this fall at the University of Maine at Farmington, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in special education, and she said she wouldn’t have done it without the program.

“I don’t know if I would have graduated,” she said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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