Penn’s transition to an in-person semester has left students slipping through the cracks — particularly those with diagnosed disabilities in need of exam accommodations and extra academic support from the University.
Students who receive testing accommodations are frustrated by an alleged lack of communication and organization from Penn’s Weingarten Learning Resources Center and Disability Services as they have transitioned to in-person exams. Some were forced to navigate the process of setting up their midterm accommodations themselves, with many ultimately experiencing inadequate proctoring and disability support on exam day — leading to wasted time and added physical and mental stress.
Students working with Disability Services previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the closure of Disability Services' testing center during the first several weeks of this semester caused some students not to receive appropriate exam accommodations. They called for Disability Services to keep the perspective of students with disabilities in mind when making changes in the future.
Weingarten provides Penn students with academic support ranging from tutoring services to learning consultations. The center also houses Disability Services, which offers students with self-identified disabilities exam accommodations and a range of professional support programs.
College sophomore Catherine Law, who transferred from George Washington University to Penn this semester, was shocked by the silent treatment she received from her Disability Services advisor in contrast to her previous disability advisors at GWU.
“My [Penn Disability Services] advisor has responded to about two of my emails the entire semester. When I’m having issues with the system, she just doesn’t respond,” Law said. She said she was panicking ahead of her midterms this month, as she did not have any exams scheduled because Weingarten's online system seemed to not be working.
Jane F. Holahan, executive director of Weingarten, acknowledged in an email to the DP that the center has seen an uptick in students and faculty reaching out for assistance with the transition back to in-person learning.
“Disability Services has been actively working with students and faculty to address their inquiries in a timely fashion,” Holahan wrote.
Law also found Weingarten to be disorganized with regard to proctoring students’ exams.
“Half of [my exams] haven’t been properly proctored, particularly ones where I’m in my own room,” Law said. “It’s to the point where when I needed help to get something on my exam, I walked outside and no one was there for 10 minutes.”
After finishing a Spanish language exam earlier this month at the designated time of 6 p.m., Law waited for her proctor to return to her testing room to collect her work. But when no one showed up for more than 15 minutes, Law said she went to several rooms in the building in which she was taking her exam before finally finding someone who directed her to the exam proctor.
Weingarten was also recently granted $2.6 million by the Moh Foundation to support students with disabilities, which will contribute to a new testing center and improved exam accommodations.
Other students also had difficulties reaching out to Weingarten staff, saying that receiving academic support was much more streamlined during previous online learning semesters, when professors would simply increase exam time limits on Canvas. Now, students say it's harder to set up exam accommodations and get connected with an academic tutor through the center.
One College sophomore, who receives exam extensions for his dyslexia, said Weingarten staff did not respond for a week to his persistent phone calls and emails seeking help with setting up exam accommodations.
“It was to the point where I was spending more time figuring out my exam accommodations than actually studying,” the College sophomore, who requested anonymity, said.
He added that his peers also had difficulties getting involved with Weingarten’s tutoring services. When trying to join a tutoring program for CHEM 102: "General Chemistry II" after a midterm earlier this month, the College sophomore received a response from Weingarten stating the program was full.
“I previously thought of the tutoring service as a bit of a backup when I’m really struggling in a class,” the College sophomore said. “It’s frustrating since most professors and the University want to point towards Weingarten as a way to do better in classes. Now, I feel I’ve lost trust in them.”
Holahan wrote that one effort to improve Weingarten’s communication with students has been a revision of Weingarten’s website, which now allows students to access the homepage, go directly to Disability Services, and use the drop-down menu to find information.
“We continue to work with students and campus partners to strengthen our communication,” her email stated.
But for College sophomore Ellie McKeown and other Weingarten students, more needs to be done.
McKeown, a student with autism and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — a physically disabling hypermobile disorder — noted slow communication with her Disability Services advisor and a lack of proper accommodation when it came time to take her exams. McKeown receives accommodations from Weingarten to take her exams virtually due to the damage writing can do to her hand.
While she was able to smoothly set up her accommodations to take her midterm earlier this month, McKeown said the day of her exam went unexpectedly. To her surprise, McKeown’s Weingarten proctors told her that she was only allowed a computer during class — not during her exam.
“There is a kind of non-connection between whoever approves the accommodations online and then who carries them out in person. The people who sign up to be proctors are not necessarily given access to the things they need access to,” McKeown said.
In an extreme effort not to forfeit her exam, McKeon arranged her own exam accommodations — putting on arthritis gloves to keep her joints in place and fighting through the pain to complete her exam on paper.
“I had to practically physically force myself to take a test using joints that weren’t made for it,” McKeown said. “That was incredibly difficult for me. I couldn’t use my hands for the rest of the day.”
For her three midterms afterward, McKeown said she had to wait each time for up to 30 minutes for Weingarten to give her a computer to take her exam.
“Frankly, students should not have to accommodate themselves. It is quite frustrating when I am denied my access requests,” McKeown said. “What Weingarten needs to do is go over all of their policies and say, ‘How can we make this clearer? Are there any situations we’re putting students in that are impossible to figure out?Are there any catch-22s or loopholes?”
Like McKeown, an Engineering junior, who requested anonymity in fear of increased scrutiny from Weingarten, similarly struggled with receiving help from their Weingarten and Disability Services advisor. They said they did not receive adequate support for their academic track and initial exam accommodations — especially during the pandemic when they were experiencing severe academic setbacks.
The Engineering junior, after being officially diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder one year ago by their physician at home, contacted Weingarten and Disability Services to set up advising and exam accommodations at Penn. Despite having the official note of their diagnosis, the student was told they would not be provided accommodation from the University without a specific psychological evaluation. The Engineering junior took the evaluation over the course of several days that winter break, and paid about $5,000 out of pocket to confirm the diagnosis.
Only seven months after initially getting in contact with Weingarten was the Engineering junior able to receive the appropriate accommodations they needed for ADHD, they said.
“You have to jump through like 10 different hoops to get help in the first place,” they said. “And for people who are in a situation where they have ADHD and they are constantly distracted, doing that whole process itself is a problem."
Eventually, the Engineering junior said they asked three administrative employees — one from Weingarten, one from Student Intervention Services, and one from Disability Services — for a statement conveying their academic improvement to the University. They said the employees declined or were hesitant to do so due to unclear policies.
Now, the Engineering junior receives support primarily through their academic advisor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. While it was an "extremely difficult" process to have Weingarten and Disability Services organize their exam accommodations, they said they're receiving the appropriate accommodations now.
They said Weingarten should be more integrated with the University to better guide students throughout their academic journey, such as setting regular meeting times with students.
“The academic aid services and the University are not linked. The University treats [Disability Services] like a trash bin and throws away students that need help,” they said. “It’s more like [Disability Services] and Weingarten are approached like band-aids, rather than support structures that prevent students from falling through the cracks.”
Like the Engineering junior, Law said she thinks Weingarten’s biggest focus should be on fostering strong relationships between advisors and students.
“Every student needs [an advisor] who will advocate for them, who is going to reach out to them and communicate with them, ask them how they're doing,” Law said. “How is an advisor supposed to help a student if they’re not talking to them?”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.