By Todd Ellenberg
Many students face daunting challenges when they enter college: academic difficulties, financial problems, and major and career choices, just to name a few. Some students face additional challenges that require customized learning services and individualized attention. The Disability Resource Center (DRC) at FIU helps ensure that students with special needs have access to needed guidance and services to help them succeed.
The DRC serves more than 3,600 FIU students and strives to promote their success by working in collaboration with community stakeholders, students, faculty, staff, and administrators to foster diverse learning environments that are accessible, usable, inclusive, and sustainable. Private philanthropy is essential for the DRC to provide these services, and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation is among the key organizations whose support has helped the center expand its services and reach more students across campus.
“Our partnership with FIU is a testament to the achievements that students with disabilities can attain when they have the resources they need,” said Robert A. Krause, CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. “FIU is among the institutions leading the way to ensure accessibility.”
The Johnson Scholarship Foundation's support of nearly $2.2 million to FIU over the past decade has funded nearly 1,200 scholarships to 650 students. The Foundation also funds scholarships to students with disabilities at all the other universities in the State University System of Florida. According to DRC Director Amanda Niguidula, “the Johnson Scholarship Foundation has opened countless doors for our hard-working students associated with the DRC.”
Christy England, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the State University System of Florida, added: "The State University System of Florida is passionate about student success. We are grateful for the community support our institutions receive, which betters outcomes and enables longer-lasting impacts for our students.”
Marc Buoniconti, a well-known community leader and philanthropist who has had a national impact on disability awareness, recently created a new endowment to assist students. This endowment will enable eligible FIU learners to graduate on time and enter their profession of choice. Buoniconti, the founder of the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center, is a national leader in fostering support to cure paralysis. “My passion is to give hope to countless students who have the will and drive to succeed but lack the financial resources to cover their costs,” he said.
FIU junior cybersecurity major Analia Camarda, who is deaf, is just one of many students benefitting from Johnson Scholarship Foundation support, which helped bridge a financial gap she experienced. Camarda was able to surmount the special learning obstacles presented during the COVID-19 pandemic and to keep pace with classwork using sign language interpreters, live captioning computer apps, and the assistance of professional note-takers.
With a passion for networking with her peers and having participated in multiple tech-based internships – including at Microsoft and SentinelOne – Camarda is well on her way to achieving her dream of working for a major tech firm. She is also actively involved on campus, participating in student organizations such as Women in Cybersecurity and Upsilon Pi Epsilon, and she is an inductee of multiple honor societies.
Junior Roger Bendana credits a Johnson Scholarship with helping him concentrate on his studies and to pursue his passion for working with animals by participating in the summer biology program at Zoo Miami. “The scholarship really helped me to just stay focused on school and not have to worry about work,” Bendana noted.
He said the DRC has been a great support system that connected him to support networks across campus, such as the Peer Mentorship Program – which he found so valuable that he intends to become a peer mentor himself now that he is an upperclassman.
“Generous donors like the Johnson Foundation and Marc Buoniconti provide the critical resources to ensure that every FIU student can attain success,” Niguidula said. “We are thankful for their support to our students and the DRC, which will enable them to have better and more meaningful lives as a result.”