By Emily Lau
November 20, 2013
Anxiety at Swat is a new, biweekly column that will profile students who experience anxiety of some sort at Swarthmore. This column will explore the spectrum of anxiety, from everyday stress to diagnosed anxiety disorders that disrupt one’s ability to function at full capacity. If you are interested in speaking to The Daily Gazette about anxiety, please email email@example.com.
Erika Cancio-Bello ’15 had always felt that she had trouble concentrating when she was in high school, but she never felt the need to address it. “I knew I had something going on in my childhood, but it never really affected my coursework because the standards [at my high school] were so low that, even when distracted and staying up late and not doing my work as fast as I could, I still had enough time, still achieving above the average. I was very much at the top of my class and had no reason to think that I had any sort of disability, despite the little quirks that I noticed.”
It was only when Cancio-Bello arrived at Swat that her problems with focus and attention-span from high school began to catch up to her and overwhelm her ability to do her coursework. This forced her to confront the “plethora” of issues she had and to figure out solutions to them. Along with generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is an anxiety disorder, Cancio-Bello also suffers from trichotillomania, or compulsive hair-pulling. This issue was exacerbated during stressful periods, when she would become distracted with pulling out her hair and eyebrows during tests or while during work, so much so that she had to draw her eyebrows on. “This is the first year I’ve been at Swat that I haven’t had to draw on my eyebrows to go outside, because they actually exist!” she said.
While at Swat, Cancio-Bello was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), as well as a physiological condition known as sensory defensiveness, wherein different senses are exaggerated and criss-crossed. “If a light is too bright, I can’t hear what someone else is saying,” she said, “If I can’t smell a scent, I can’t identify it until I take off my headphones. I can detect extremely low and high frequencies…, so I can hear things other people can’t, and that overwhelms me.”
Typically, in a situation like Cancio-Bello’s, a student has the option of requesting academic accommodations through Swarthmore’s Student Disability Service. According to Leslie Hempling, Coordinator of Learning Resources and Student Disability Services, it is a process of “determining ‘reasonable accommodations,’… so what’s going to help [a student] have an equal education, without fundamentally altering core course requirements.” In theory, with proper documentation from a professional, a student should be able to access accommodations, like extended time on tests or certain living conditions, which are tailored to their particular needs.
When recalling the process of seeking accommodations from the Swarthmore administration, Cancio-Bello recalls feeling confused about the accommodations process and what she could request. “There were a lot of misunderstandings between me and the administration. They would ask me, ‘What do you need?’ and I would be like ‘I don’t know, please tell me what I need.’ And I would often not get the right amount of information that way, because they would suggest something, and I would be like, ‘That sounds good,’ and then realize I wasn’t getting something I should have been getting, because I didn’t know to ask for it or didn’t know it was allowed.”
Hempling believes strongly that the current system in place is capable of aiding students with learning disabilities in any way possible. “Accommodations are done person by person, case by case,” said Hempling, “My job is working really closely with a student and figuring out what’s going to help you access your course material in the best way possible.”
Eventually, Cancio-Bello was given extended time on tests, administered in a quiet room with minimal distractions. “There are no people there, because I can hear them breathing or smell their perfume half the room away, so all that’s very distracting,” she said. “It’s also much less embarrassing to wear lab goggles in an empty room, which I often needed in order to keep from losing an entire eyebrow during a test! It is so not cool to be taking a humanities test with goggles, it just looks weird.”
In terms of living conditions, Cancio-Bello currently resides in Mary Lyons and finds the dorm environment there conducive to both her studying and social needs. “Pretty much all my friends live there, and it has a great community with a lot of people who identify a lot with you and have the same issues,” she said, “There’s always someone there to support you or someone to just be your friend if you need them. You also don’t hear the parties. I have super-hearing, so sometimes I can hear Paces. But most of the time, I have a white-noise maker in my room, which drowns out all the noises that would distract me.”
Along with making individual adjustments to her living space, Cancio-Bello has found a widespread community of understanding and support. “If I put a sign outside my door saying ‘On school nights, everyone out by 11:30,’ people will do it. They listen to me and respect my boundaries. Most of the people in ML know about my issues and respect them, and that’s very important to me.”
Cancio-Bello has also found that understanding and respect among her professors at Swarthmore. “There are very few people who don’t know anyone who’s been affected by some sort of disorder,” she said, “[Professors] are very open to talking about it, and some of them even… give personal stories.” Cancio-Bello has sometimes received personal emails from professors checking in on her and making sure that she is managing well with the assigned work.
Still, even with community support and accommodations provided by the College, navigating the academic environment of Swarthmore still very much requires individual effort and perseverance, a statement which is true, to some degree, for most students. “I sometimes go into weird hermit moods where I’ll go into my room and stay there for absurd amounts of time, and not do any work or eat or anything, and those things can interfere with any homework assignments I’m supposed to be doing,” said Cancio-Bello.
“But… you can’t just get an extension because you were sitting in your room with plenty of time and not doing anything, that’s just straight-up procrastination. [The College has] no way of differentiating when [these moods are] caused by laziness and when [they’re] caused by a disorder. You kind of just have to deal with it because it doesn’t really help to get extensions for those types of things. You kind of have to really overcome those pieces you can accommodate,” she said.