This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website:

24 August, 2011

Sometimes You Just Have to Close Your Eyes and Jump

When I was asked to write this piece, I wondered what I had to offer early career professionals – I am still one, I think. Or at least I am in Part Two of my career. Regardless, here’s my story along with my two cents.

I’ll start with my story…In the early 2000s, I was working at a community-based organization in the western suburbs of Chicago that provides supports and services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. My boss at the time, David, initiated our organization’s involvement in the Illinois Direct Support Professional Workforce Initiative, a three-year systems change project funded by the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities involving a partnership between the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, the Institute on Disability and Human Development (IDHD) at the University of Chicago (UIC), and Human Services Research Institute (HSRI). David approached me and told me that there was a meeting at the UIC he wanted me to attend with our human resources manager. I was wary of being involved, mainly because I didn’t know what it was. I asked, “Do I have to?” to which he answered, “Yes”. I didn’t know it then, but my life was about to change drastically. (Thank you, David).

After that first meeting with what turned out to be the Steering Committee, I continued to be involved in the project and meet a number of highly respected individuals advocating on behalf of themselves as well as persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their support staff. It was during this time that I learned about the Masters in Disability and Human Development in the Department of Disability and Human Development at IDHD. I had no idea such a program existed. I had been working with people with IDD for nearly a decade in roles from direct support professional, to QMRP, to Director of Quality Assurance and Training, but did not know that there was a related academic degree. I had been giving serious thought to graduate school but hadn’t found the right program. I spoke with one of the IDHD staff working on the project, Mary Kay Rizzolo (who also happened to be the Associate Director of the UCEDD), about the Masters program and she encouraged me to apply. I also happened to hear Glenn Fujiura (Director of the Masters program at the time) speak at a conference and approached him with questions. He too encouraged me to apply. Luckily, heeding the advice of both Glenn and Mary Kay, I applied, was accepted and began the Masters program in August of 2006.

And so, I was enrolled full time in the Masters program and working full time between my job at the same agency and the graduate assistantship and loving every minute of it. Two months in, I knew that I wanted to apply to the PhD program in Disability Studies – I had been bitten by the academic bug. As time passed, I eventually left my organization for a position at IDHD which was split between the UCEDD and the LEND. I completed my Masters in July of 2008 and began the PhD program in August of that same year.

IDHD is the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) in Illinois. One of the perks of my position at IDHD, was the opportunity to attend AUCD’s annual conference. It was during one of these conferences that I met Kim Musheno, AUCD’s Director of Legislative Affairs, and was able to accompany her to Senator Dick Durbin’s office to educate his staff about the Combating Autism Act and its impact on the Illinois LEND. Up until this point, I had an academic interest in policy in terms of systems change, but this experience lit something in me. I really enjoyed educating legislative staff about something I cared about and I was motivated to do more of it. Tamar Heller, Director of IDHD, suggested I apply to be the AUCD Fellow in Disability Policy.

While the idea of the fellowship was very exciting, I proceeded with caution. After all, I was a PhD student, a wife, a daughter, a homeowner and employee. If I applied, what if I was chosen? Where would I live? Would my husband come with me? Would I have a job to come back to in Illinois? How would I work on my dissertation? My husband was incredibly supportive and encouraged me to apply. After all, he said, the worst thing that could happen is I wouldn’t be accepted. And so, I closed my eyes and jumped and landed in Washington, DC. (If you are wondering, I live with a college friend and her family, no my husband did not come with me and yes, it appears that I will have a job to go back to in Illinois. I have taken the year off from academics and most importantly, my husband is still supportive).

And so here’s the part where I offer my two cents. People have asked me, “Do you think it will be worth it?” Without hesitation I can answer, “It already is”. Despite being away from my husband, our dogs, our house, my family, friends, colleagues and everything familiar, this has been a time of tremendous personal and professional growth for me. I came here for one main reason: to learn advocacy strategies. In the course of my academic studies, I’ve studied interest groups in terms of the role they play in politics. Being here in DC, I’ve been able to experience first hand the role of advocacy in the political process. I’ve learned about coalition and relationship building and how groups with similar interests can come together to work toward a common purpose. Most importantly, I’ve taken a peak under the hood of democracy and learned that it can move painfully slow but I am more thankful for it and the people (and discussions) that make it possible. I feel prepared to return to Illinois with a renewed sense of purpose, some new gadgets in my toolbox, additional professional connections and an appreciation for the work of advocacy organizations at the national level.

Like I said earlier, sometimes you have to close your eyes and jump. I am so glad I did.