Student Spotlight: Chris Gaines
Disability:IN highlights various young leaders with disabilities in the NextGen Leaders Student Stories Spotlight Series. If you are a corporate partner (or potential partner), and would like more information on the Disability:IN Mentorship Exchange Program, please contact Liz ([email protected]). If you are a young leader with a disability and would like more information on the Mentorship Exchange Program or the Talent Accelerator Program, please contact Keri ([email protected]).
The number of students with disabilities attending higher education in the United States now represents 6% of the student body. As with any graduate, their professional success will stem from several things, including work ethic, opportunity, and, for some, having a mentor to guide them.
Quality mentoring relationships have a powerful effect on young people in a variety of situations – personally, academically and professionally. Initiatives like the Disability:IN Mentorship Exchange Program were created to further those opportunities. This six-month career mentoring strategy brings together employers with college students with disabilities and recent graduates with disabilities in a mutually beneficial way. Through Disability:IN’s network of over 160 corporate partners, we match at least 70 individuals to business professionals in their field of study, area of interest, and to whom they would not otherwise have access. The Mentorship Exchange Program connects students like Christopher Gaines to experts that can provide professional growth and development, and social and economic opportunities.
Christopher ‘Chris’ Gaines lived in many places growing up in a military family with his mother and sister, but his last and current residence is Silver Spring, Maryland. As an individual with general muscle weakness due to Cerebral Palsy, but not a wheelchair user, Chris sought a good college with a campus that he could easily navigate. He chose the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) due to its Paratransit bus service for students with disabilities. In 2015, Chris graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Family Science and a minor in Rhetoric. He also earned UMCP’s University Honors College Citation, and a 3.5 GPA. After graduation, he began his graduate studies at the University of Maryland University College, where he received his Master of Science in Management in 2018, graduating with a 3.9 GPA. Chris chose to continue his education to broaden his job opportunities, acquire skills that aligned with his career goals, and enable him to be a job candidate who stands out.
When Chris was a student at UMCP, he was able to use his secondary school 504 Plan to set up the accommodations he needed. These included recording lectures and transferring text books to CDs using equipment available at the campus library. He also took the initiative to speak with his professors regarding the accommodations and arrived early to class. During his undergraduate studies, Chris held board and officer positions in several disability-related activities and honor societies. He served on the board of UMCP’s President’s Commission on Disability Issues, the largest voice for disability inclusion on the campus. During his tenure as President of the campus chapter of Delta Alpha Pi, the country’s only national honor society for high achieving students with disabilities, the chapter grew significantly. The president of the University of Maryland honored Chris with the Undergraduate PCEMI (President’s Commission on Ethnic Minority Issues) award in 2015 for his work on disability issues. Chris was inducted into Phi Alpha Epsilon, an honor society for students in public education with GPAs of 3.5 or higher, and Phi Upsilon Omicron, a national honor society for Family and Consumer Sciences at UMCP. At UMUC, he was inducted into the National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS) and received the society’s National Engaged Leader award in 2018.
Chris discovered the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) through his active involvement in campus activities, including serving as an advisor to the Accessibility & Disability Services office, and his conversations with a counselor at the Career Center. While Chris earned high academic achievements and honors, his job hunt continued for a year after his graduation in May 2015. Success arrived in April 2016 as the result of his listing in the WRP, through which he was handpicked for an internship at the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity (ODMEO) in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. His outstanding performance in the internship led to ODMEO retaining him in a full-time position as a Management and Program Analyst.
In 2017, the WRP opened more doors when Chris received announcements for the Disability:IN Mentorship Exchange (formerly the USBLN Rising Leaders Mentoring Program) and the Disability:IN Talent Accelerator (formerly the USBLN Rising Leadership Academy). He applied and was accepted for both programs. Chris was matched with a mentor, who provided multiple enrichment experiences for him, including attending conferences, events, and insight into careers in the private business sector.
Chris was also accepted for the 2017 Talent Accelerator academy held in conjunction with Disability:IN’s Annual Conference in August 2017 in Orlando, Florida. In addition to career readiness sessions, the academy offered multiple networking and interview opportunities with Disability:IN corporate partners. Chris was interviewed by five companies representing five different industries. During the conference, Chris was offered a full-time position and he accepted the offer. Throughout his first year as a Business Development Operations Analyst, work-related accommodations have been easily handled and the work culture is welcoming and supportive. Career enrichment opportunities are available, and Chris has already participated in a Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation six-month training program for solution-focused design approaches to problem solving in a business environment.
Chris serves as a Community Outreach board member, where he assists with planning and implementing community outreach events. He leverages these and other activities to share his story and his growth with other students with disabilities. When he first entered college, his thought, based on previous negative experiences, was to get through “with as little harm as possible” and not be noticed. His advice now to students, however, is not to wait for others to speak up, to embrace your voice as a person with a disability, and to expand your horizons. He also wants students with disabilities to appreciate disability in the context of intersectionality. As a Black man with a disability, he has had two societal challenges and is proud to share both selves.
According to Chris’ mentor, “Working with Chris as his mentor under the Disability:IN Mentorship Exchange program was such an outstanding experience. He is a true leader and it showed the very first time we met in person when I invited him to attend a Millennials with Disabilities program hosted by the DC Metro BLN; for his participation he was invited to attend the board of directors meeting. I see a bright future ahead of him making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.”
Each Disability:IN NextGen Leaders Program is designed to support students and recent graduates as they navigate the professional world, and answer unique questions that relate to being a person with a disability in the workforce. Visit disabilityin.org for more information about the programs.
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