A hush swept over the crowd at Bryant University’s Learning Lab as Nicole Tucker Smith, CEO of education consulting firm LessonCast, prepared to deliver keynote remarks on how Bryant’s educators can accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners.
First, though, she had an additional piece of wisdom to share: “Ava Genova,” said Tucker Smith, “is a powerhouse.”
Seated in the audience, Genova, a senior Marketing major from Shelton, Connecticut, and the force behind the inaugural symposium, beamed as the culmination of nearly four years of advocacy, and courage, came to fruition.
For all her passion and hard work, this success was never assured for Genova, an advocate for students with learning differences at Bryant.
As a high school senior, Genova — whose learning differences include encoding and decoding processing disorder, ADHD, and anxiety — had been erroneously told by her high school guidance counselor that her learning accommodations would no longer be available in college. Determined to persevere, Genova studied and did homework for around eight hours a night, every night, during her first semester at Bryant in the fall of 2020. Despite her conviction, she couldn’t make headway. “I cried almost every night, too,” she remembers.
Everything began to change, though, when she attended a panel on students with disabilities at Bryant’s annual Day of Understanding, a university-wide event that affords the community with opportunities to learn from one another. At the panel, Genova listened to other students discuss their experiences with learning differences and finding accommodations that helped them.
“Everything they said resonated with me, and it made me feel a sense of relief,” she notes. “I felt like I was being seen and heard — and that I was valued. The people in that group had experienced the same hardships that I had.
“I found my people, and I found my community, basically,” says Genova.
“I never want another student to experience the mental, physical, and emotional stress that I experienced.”
Empowered, Genova reached out to Marie Saddlemire, director of Bryant’s Office of Accessibility Services and assistant director of the university’s Academic Center for Excellence, and together they developed accommodations that would support her learning. Simple things mostly, like access to eBooks and a little more time to take tests.
Those differences, she says, “literally changed my entire college experience.” She now counts Saddlemire as one of her biggest supporters.
The panel also introduced her to Delta Alpha Pi, an international academic honor society founded to recognize, and advocate for, high-achieving college students with disabilities. Through Delta Alpha Pi, Genova made connections with other students with learning differences, including the honor society’s president Via Valenti ’21, now a diversity and inclusion strategy consultant at Global View Communications, who became both a mentor and inspiration to her, she says. With Ava’s encouragement, Genova rose through the Delta Alpha Pi ranks, becoming president during her junior year.
“That’s where my passion developed for advocating for students with disabilities,” she says. “I never want another student to experience the mental, physical, and emotional stress that I experienced.”
In addition to advocacy, says Genova, the group works to reduce the stigma surrounding disability by spreading awareness. “I’ve struggled with my learning differences my whole life and they’ve always been a part of me,” she says. “But my parents have always taught me to never be ashamed.”
She shared that message on a larger stage during her sophomore year, when she found herself on the very same Day of Understanding panel she attended as a first-year student.
“That was one of my very first times speaking in front of people,” she remembers. “I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous, and jittery at first. But after I was done, it felt really good.”
In May of her junior year, she hit upon a grander idea: What if the panel that had made such a difference in her life could be expanded — and what if she could speak directly to Bryant’s educators?
She brought the concept to Delta Alpha Pi’s advisors, Saddlemire and Ryan Sonder, lecturer of History, Language, and the Arts and an associate faculty fellow with Bryant’s Center for Teaching Excellence, who then brought in Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students, and Chief Diversity Officer Inge-Lise Ameer, Ed.D. “They loved it, so I took it and ran with it,” says Genova.
Throughout that summer, Genova worked as both a fellow for Bryant’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging and an intern with the university’s Office of Accessibility Services. But the conference was always on her mind. “I would think of an idea, and I would run to Marie, and say ‘Listen to this.’ And then I’d go back and do some more research and then run right back over again.”
The proposed mini conference debuted as the inaugural Bryant University Learning Lab, a series of symposia on intentional and interactive approaches to teaching and learning about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the classroom. Slowly but surely, the event took shape.
The most difficult part, though, proved to be choosing a keynote speaker. Through her research, Genova discovered Tucker Smith and was enthralled by her expertise in Universal Design for Learning, an educational framework that guides the development of flexible learning environments to accommodate individual learning differences. She was also excited that Tucker Smith’s work was truly intersectional, cutting across racism and ableism.
“She was everything I was looking for,” Genova remembers. But despite repeated attempts, making contact proved difficult.
As the summer came to a close, and the planned conference loomed, Genova found her opportunity. Sponsored by Bryant, she attended the ninth annual CAST UDL Symposium, which brought together educators across the nation to consider how to eliminate learning inequalities.
“Whoever you are, you can make an impact on somebody’s life, whether it’s small or big. That’s something I try to live by.”
The only student to take part in the conference, Genova says she made a host of invaluable connections. But the real moment of impact came when she found Tucker Smith.
“I kept walking up to the conference door where she was presenting and telling myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to go in,’ ” she remembers with a laugh.
Finally working up the courage, Genova approached Tucker Smith on the symposium floor and made her pitch. Like Ameer and Saddlemire, Tucker Smith was won over by Genova’s vision and agreed to deliver the keynote.
On October 4, faculty from across Bryant’s College of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, and School of Health and Behavioral Sciences came together for the Learning Lab. In addition to Tucker Smith’s keynote, the event included a faculty panel and a video of Genova and other Bryant students sharing their experiences with learning differences.
“This was a space where we could all collaborate with one another and learn from one another,” she notes. “Bryant is a community for everyone, so it’s important that we all work together.”
Genova, who will be graduating from Bryant in December — a semester early —, says her work isn’t over. She’s currently finalizing an article sharing her research and experiences that will be published in the journal Multiple Voices: Disability, Race, and Language Intersections in Special Education and she aims to continue advocating for others throughout her career.
As Genova looks back at her time at Bryant, she hopes she’s inspired other students to speak up and seek their own positive change. “Whoever you are, you can make an impact on somebody’s life, whether it’s small or big,” she says. “That’s something I try to live by.”