Departing DSS director had empathetic spirit, proactive mindset

Jaggar DeMarco, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

I often feel uncomfortable calling people in positions of authority by their first names, even when they request it. But I never had a problem calling the departing executive director of Disability Support Services, Christy Willis, just Christy. That’s how at ease I felt with her.

I’m sure many of the resources DSS provides today are the direct results of her 30 years of dedication. I know any assistance I received from DSS went through or was pushed by Christy herself, and I imagine this trailblazing will be her legacy here.

What I can say for absolute certain is that she has made my time at GW immeasurably easier.

When I arrived on campus, I installed a speech-to-text software on my computer to write essays, send emails and do homework. But for me, the program sounded much better than it actually worked: It was often temperamental and made Siri’s autocorrect look like Webster’s Dictionary. It wasn’t the best option, but I figured I’d make do.

In high school, I had a scribe – a student to whom I would dictate my writing assignments and who did a much better job than any software. But that was provided to me by my family, not my school. I never brought up the possibility of having one in college because I didn’t expect it to be an option at GW. At such a big school, I didn’t think anyone would make room to devote those resources to just one person.

Even though I didn’t ask for a scribe, Christy made sure I had one anyway. Somehow she knew – maybe because I had mentioned it offhand once – that it was important to me. Within my first few days at school, she created a new paid position within DSS to help me with course work and other responsibilities, and a massive amount of the strain that my original program presented was relieved.

That was the first of many instances in which Christy took a proactive role in my career at GW. She also leapt at the chance to connect me to another older student with the same disability as me – he proved an invaluable source of information, advice and perspective.

The first months of college are difficult for everyone, but Christy made my transition easier. It was assuring that I had an office – and one specific individual, in Christy herself – so focused on my needs and eager to ensure my success.

Later in my college career, Christy reinstated the speaker’s bureau, a group of DSS-registered students who serve as “brand ambassadors.” The bureau encourages students like myself to speak about our experiences and have our stories heard.

I’ve spoken in various classrooms – once, to a graduate education class about obstacles students with disabilities face in the education system. I’ve met with admissions, housing and facilities. I also met with the architects of District House, a residence hall that will be home to 850 sophomores and juniors in a couple years, to check that the rooms will be handicap accessible.

These experiences are valuable for me and other students with disabilities: They empower us to be self-advocates and start a dialogue about the often-taboo topic of disability.

And it illustrates Christy’s commitment to making every part of GW more inclusive. All the while, she got to know me on a personal level, asking me about my non-academic interests.

Christy’s replacement, of course, will have to be familiar with DSS and GW’s various policies. But he or she also needs to have the empathetic spirit Christy displayed so well during her time here.

Every time you were in the DSS office, Christy would make sure to greet you. She would strike up a conversation about your weekend, chat about the best eats around D.C. or ask about your family. While some people might do this out of obligation, it never seemed disingenuous with Christy. And because of her good nature, the whole office seemed to emulate the same energy.

To Christy, working at DSS is not just a job – it’s a calling to motivate her students to do more, like spreading knowledge and helping improve the conditions of others. I’m lucky I got to know her.

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