Coordinator, Disability Services
One fall day in 1995, Pam Farron received a newspaper clipping from a friend. It was a classified ad for a Coordinator of Disability Services position at BCC. On a whim, Pam — then five years into her position as Assistant Coordinator of Disability Services at Hudson Valley Community College — took the day off, drove to BCC and walked around the campus. "I chatted with people and pretended I was a student," Pam recalls. "Everyone was so warm and friendly, and they said hello as I walked by." Immediately struck by a sense of belonging, Pam applied, got an interview and was offered the job.
Nearly three decades later, Pam heads up the Disability Resource Center, where she provides a wide range of accommodations and support services to students with disabilities. It's a busy and sometimes stressful job, but it's Pam's passion.
I've been working with students with some type of disability my whole life.
That life didn't always come easily. Born in Beverly, Massachusetts, Pam was raised by a single mother of four who died at age 29, when Pam was just 12 years old. She and her siblings moved to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to live with her aunt and her husband, a Black drill instructor in the Marines. In a time in which interracial marriages were not common, Pam was exposed to racial tension in her neighborhood. Money was tight. She married a Marine in a drive-through wedding chapel (a marriage that didn't last long, she says with a chuckle) and had a son, who she raised on her own. But she wanted more, and she was going to have to break with tradition to get it.
"In my family, you either were in the military, married to the military or you were a secretary," she says. She enrolled at Coastal Carolina Community College to do just that — become a secretary — until she met her English teacher. "Mrs. Howard loved my writing and suggested I take some classes other than secretarial ones. So I did, and I loved it," Pam remembers. Her teachers took her under their wing and said she had the potential to do more. With their guidance, she decided to pursue a degree in elementary education, ultimately earning her undergraduate degree from the College of Saint Rose.
After substitute teaching for about a year, Pam realized she wanted a graduate degree to further her career. She returned to Saint Rose as a full-time student, working evenings at an addiction recovery center to pay the bills, and earned a master's degree in educational psychology counseling. She landed the job at Hudson Valley Community College shortly thereafter, where she helped develop the relatively new Disability Services program until making the move to BCC.
Over the years, the number of students the Disability Resource Center serves has grown significantly and the demographics have changed. "We serve a lot more students with mental illness and autism, more students attend part-time, and we serve more minority students than we ever have in the past," Pam says, adding that while students with disabilities typically make up 11 to16% of the total BCC enrollment, they usually make up an even larger percentage of the students earning certificate and degrees. "They also tend to be well represented in student government, Phi Theta Kappa and our Academic Scholars program. When they have the support, they succeed," she says.
Despite the many challenges Pam faces every day, the success stories keep her passion alive. She recalls a high school graduate who came to campus with a parent who did much of the talking for her and recommended the accommodations her daughter might need. "The student was shy and said very little. She was not prepared to advocate for herself," Pam says. But once enrolled, she met with Pam frequently. As the student grew more comfortable, Pam tried to space their meetings further apart, but the student resisted. Today, that student only checks in when needed and has become a strong advocate for herself and classmates with disabilities, reporting access concerns and participating in various focus groups to ensure students with disabilities' voices and needs are heard. "It's so satisfying to see how independent and strong she has become," Pam says.
Then there was a single mother who was returning to college after several years away. She was significantly hard of hearing, but was raised without any services or accommodations. She worked in the Disability Resource Center as Pam's work-study student, where Pam learned about her hearing impairment and the academic challenges it created. Pam provided her with computer assisted real-time transcription (CART), an FM system and note-taking assistance. "It completely overwhelmed her at first," Pam says, who recalls holding back tears as her student cried. "She just never realized how much she was missing." In time, Pam says, the student learned how to use technology to best meet her needs, and today, she has a master's degree in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker for the Brien Center.
Finally, Pam talks about a student with significant learning challenges who has enrolled in the College off and on for many years, taking just a couple classes per semester while maintaining a work-study job. "He is one of the most persistent and resilient students I have ever known. He just does not give up, and because of that, he has made connections to faculty and staff who have invested in his success," Pam says. "He may or may not graduate with a degree, but it's not always about the degree or certificate — sometimes it's about personal growth."
That kind of personal growth isn't just for students. Last year, Pam heard a presentation from disability rights activist Rebecca Cokley, who talked about the intersectionality between disability and race, poverty, education, imprisonment and violence. "She floored me," Pam says. "I never thought about disability rights and how they were connected to social justice movement." As a result, she arranged for Cokley to present a virtual talk at BCC, and every Friday, Pam emails short Disability Demands Justice videos to faculty and staff.
My program has changed my life. I get to do really meaningful work that has an impact on people's lives. It really makes a difference. I'm passionate about public education because we teach everybody.
For all the hard work she does, Pam still takes time for herself. She loves hiking, kayaking, yoga, sewing and hanging out with friends for dinner. But her most animated self is revealed when she talks about her workplace. "It's like family. There is just something special about BCC."