December 5, 2022

MKRTCHYAN | My Trust Issues With Cornell

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Some of you might recall one of my previous columns when I described my struggles getting an SDS accommodation. It has since only gone downhill from there. In this column, I will be bringing my experience as an example of how staff and faculty at Cornell can mistreat and mislead students trying to get SDS accommodations.

As a person with Student Disability Services accommodations, I was entitled to ask my instructors for deadline extensions along with many other accommodations. In fact, I had two letters back to back, one for mental health reasons and one for my physical health after I was hospitalized. The SDS email sent to me stated: “The letters will not disclose your condition, just that accommodations are necessary during this time. You do not need to share with your professors why accommodations are needed.” My CS 2800 instructors gave me an extension only theoretically, while practically keeping the problem set locked so I had no access to it. They refused to prolong the extension even when it was their fault that the problem set was locked.

The SDS office asked the instructors to meet with me and discuss this situation. My CS instructors started talking at me despite the fact that they knew nothing about the reasons behind my accommodations. They cut me short when I was trying to explain. They told me that it was in my best interest to disclose my health condition, for them to “assess the seriousness” of it and base their decision on that. Well, everyone, let’s congratulate the CS 2800 instructors on their new degrees in medicine, now it seems like they are qualified doctors to “assess the seriousness” of a health condition  even when I had a letter from actual doctors that stated that I needed accommodations. That is exactly what happened to me, and apparently they did not agree with the SDS letter, as they told my advisor that I had ample opportunity to catch up.

I tried telling them about my background, that I had three cases of pneumonia before and I had barely survived one as a child, making me emotional and vulnerable after my recent hospitalization. The professor was feeling especially kind on that day to say that she thought that the other instructor was kind enough to send me the PDF, and that she wouldn’t have sent it to me, as she thought it was my responsibility to download it. The PDF preview feature is silently crying in the corner. You know what is more ironic than a professor not knowing about the preview feature for homework: a Computer Science professor not knowing about this feature.

In hindsight, they did everything to scare me off by saying that “whatever I am trying to achieve, the answer is no.” Funny enough, I was not trying to achieve anything that they can say no to.

On a more serious note, as someone who had mental health accommodations because of the war back home in Armenia, I find it concerning that the instructors can attack and blame a student like me without even knowing the reason for accommodations. Hear me out — maybe if the University wants people to stop jumping off of bridges, it should educate its instructors to be understanding and compassionate.

Because of this conversation and the instructors’ lack of cooperation and compassion, I decided to drop the class because I was going through a hard time mentally and physically at the time. I was told that for “special occasions” the Arts and Sciences College would consider a withdrawal as a drop. Hence, in my petition I cited both of my SDS letters, one referring to my mental health because of the war, and one referring to my physical condition because of my bronchitis, asking them to consider this as a drop because of my “special circumstances.” The Sr. Assistant Registrar at Arts & Sciences Student Services emailed me back stating: “The deadline to drop a course is a firm deadline, and we are not able to fulfill your request to drop (without a W) at this date.” Interestingly enough, right after I mentioned that I know that they have made exceptions before, they replied saying that they had made exceptions for students who thought they had dropped a class and did not realize they were still enrolled. 

Now, obviously, “a firm deadline” and “few cases [of exceptions]” directly contradict each other, and I am not sure if it is allowed to say something that they absolutely know is wrong. However, can we talk about how a sane person would consider an inattentive student who “thought they dropped a class and did not realize that they were still enrolled” a special exception, but not me, who had two student disability service letters and an obvious failure to be accommodated by the instructors? I can’t imagine why a person would be so unfair and discriminatory.

The bottom line is that the faculty and staff here at Cornell are not perfect, and unless you are stubborn and outspoken, they will likely do nothing to help you. In my case, the University failed me because I was physically sick and mentally vulnerable because of the war back home: circumstances that did not depend on me. If you are in a vulnerable situation, try to read all the policies by yourself rather than relying on someone’s words, and have all the conversations on record in your email. Prioritize your physical and mental health despite the toxic culture of Cornell. And finally, be resilient and outspoken, because nothing scares an institution more than people who can stand up for themselves.

Lili Mkrtchyan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Tea with Lily runs every other Monday this semester.