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For kids with learning and thinking differences, preparing for life after high school often brings up many emotions and questions. “What’s next for me?” “Will I have the same accommodations?” “Will I be successful in my studies?” 

In this episode, Julian talks with Sudi Shayesteh. Sudi is the director of the Office of AccessABILITY at Hunter College. Learn about the challenges students who learn and think differently face when transitioning out of high school. And get tips on how to team up with the school to better prepare students for this transition.

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3. 

On today's episode, we're exploring the unique journeys kids with learning and thinking differences face when transitioning from special education to higher education or education beyond high school. So many students will leave high school, and they don't really know about all the resources that are available to them at the college level. So, we're going to talk about some of the challenges that students commonly face when making that transition. 

I am really excited to welcome Sudi Shayesteh. Sudi is the director of the Office of AccessABILITY at Hunter College in New York. She brings a wealth of knowledge and over 20 years of experience in higher education and disability services. 

Sudi: Good to be here. I'm so happy to be here. I'm looking forward to our conversation. 

Julian: Awesome, awesome, awesome. So, Sudi, this is something like really near and dear to me. And so, I'd love for you to just to start us off by telling us, why do you do this work? How did you get into the work you do in disability services? 

Sudi: Well, I am by license and training, a school psychologist, Julian. And for my post-grad degree, I did some studies and certification degrees for bilingual, working with bilingual students with disabilities. And eventually, I landed a job at New York City College of Technology. That's where I was doing some internships, and they called me and offered me a job as a learning disability specialist. 

Now, seven years later, I landed this position as the Director of Office of AccessABILITY at Hunter College, and I haven't left since then, which was 2005. I love working with college students. I love working with college students with different type of disabilities. I started with learning disability and then, through job I learned that it doesn't end there. Disabilities are sort of, interconnected. One disability results in another one and becomes secondary, tertiary to another form of disability. So, it's all sort of interconnected. 

And that sort of inspired me to continue with the work. And when I was at City Tech —  New York City College of Technology — that's where I did most of my work with the transitional trainings and collaborating with high schools, working with high school junior and senior students, coming and visiting the college and answering questions and providing training, so forth and so on. So, it's been kind of constant movement, constant growth, constant learning, while I'm also trying to help families and students with disabilities. 

Julian: Wow. You have a pretty packed career so far. You've done a lot of things, and especially at the higher education level. Being at Hunter for so long and being in this role, education has transitioned a lot in the time that you started to where we are at now. Can you talk to us a little bit about how your specific field has evolved since you started? 

Sudi: Sure. Well, yes, you're right. I started this in 98, and I can say with confidence that when I started, the focus wasn't on transitional training then. And even when the K to 12 towards high school — let's say high school administration — the IEPs were only created during the last year of the students' high school transition. And there wasn't much time to get to know these students, what their abilities, what are their disabilities, what are their likes and dislikes. 

Nowadays, the IEPs are created as early as kindergarten now. As soon as someone is identified as having a disability — as soon as a child is identified as having some sort of a difficulty, or identified as neurodiverse, or having a developmental, psychological, any kind of a disability — the parents get involved, the administration gets involved, the guidance counselors, the specialists get involved, and from the get-go, they sit together and decide what is the next best step. 

So, this is a huge step forward towards understanding that the identifying disability and sort of troubleshooting or addressing the needs of students with disabilities is not going to be all done in one year towards the graduation. This is a continual work. This is something that parents and administration have to work on it from the get-go. 

So, they get their students ready by the time they hit high school years, and hopefully by then they're ready to move on to the next level and transition even, whether it's into higher education or a job or some sort of career. 

So, there is a big change that I can see it has happened since. I can also see that the assistive technology has been integrated into teaching the students in the classrooms. Assistive technology, it was very much limited those days. Tape recorders, considered as assistive technology. Now we have all these kind of assistive softwares and hardwares for visually impaired, learning disabled, hard of hearing students. 

Name it and they're all incorporated into the classroom learning and outside the classroom environment. So, these are all the, a lot of big changes that have happened. 

Julian: I really want to hone in on the idea of transitions. For those of you listening that have children or students with learning and thinking differences, you might hear the phrase "transition planning." You'll find that in the body of an IEP or in the process of writing an IEP. And as somebody, again, who is an administrator at the high school level, I get to see transition planning on both ends: when middle school students are doing transition planning into high school and then as we're planning for transitions out of high school, we really sit down as a team. 

And like you said, the family, the student, the teachers, the administrators, the whole team kind of forecasts or plans out, what does that transition going to look like? And a lot of times we find that transition planning starts at the very beginning of the process. So, we're looking further down the road and we might be looking three, four, or five years down the road, as to what things look like, like this backwards planning transition period. So, I'd love to kick the further part of the conversation off with just defining, what are these transitions we're talking about and what can they look like? 

Sudi: There are transitions from high school to college, there are transitions from high school to career and then there are transitions to from high school to further trainings. So, there are different type of transitions that are out there. But each group of students needs a certain level of training and readiness before they hit that plateau, if that makes sense. Now, so, for instance, for students who are just transitioning to higher education, these students, they need to know what they're facing by going to college. 

They need to know that there's a huge difference, there's a gap between the way higher education approaches learning and the way that high schools do. The way the classroom is structured, the way the hours are structured, the way that the guidance counselors and parents are involved in high school versus the level of their involvement, if any, in higher education. 

Then there's a whole lot of transitional issues in terms of lack of socialization skills. Is throwing someone from a pond into an ocean, sort of the example I usually give, for students that are not familiar with college and college atmosphere and challenges. It's really throwing someone into the ocean and telling them "Learn to swim." So, there is a big transitional issue, so what's going to happen to them? There's a great deal of training, a great deal of conversation, communication and exploring the options for that particular student. 

And I always say, involve them in the conversation, have a talk with them, see what are their thoughts. What is it that they think they cannot do versus where is it that they think they can do or they're interested to do before you make any decisions. And then, look into the resources and sources they're out there to see if there are any companies, agencies, any sort of sites that they would provide some sort of a training. We are talking also about cultural differences. 

The cultural differences among students that are visually impaired, the blind, might be very different from cultural differences among students who are deaf and hard of hearing versus cultural differences among the students with autism, right? In the spectrum. 

Julian: And that's the truth, right? And you mentioned earlier how some disabilities may intersect with other disabilities. And when you were talking about the cultural differences  — depending on what disability or learning difference the student may have — it made me think there's another layer too, with cultural differences based on race or gender or nationality, ethnicity, and how those also play a part in what that transition may look like. 

Now, you also mentioned how this is not just about higher education, right? Like, we know that the majority of students across the nation do not attend higher education. Like there's other options that our students go into. And I'm speaking specifically around trade schools. I'm speaking about military or even the world of work. What does it look like for students who are not college-bound? 

All right, so say I'm a student who has an IEP and I'm choosing to enroll in trade school. Or maybe I have a 504 plan, and I've enlisted in the army. Are there resources available for them to prepare for their journey, too? 

Sudi: Definitely. There are a lot of resources citywide. I mean, there are programs that focus on helping the student to equip them with practical skills, certifications, job placements. Or for example, schools might collaborate with local businesses or trade schools to offer vocational training and courses in fields such as, let's say, carpentry, automotive repair, or culinary arts. 

Just give the students some sort of a hands-on experience and give them some sort of industry certification, which is very empowering when you think of it. Is very empowering, is right in the, you know, where it should be. And so, the emphasis is on preparing business students through internship, apprenticeship, community-based programs that aligned with their employment or post-high school plans. And there are tons of programs across the city that help students with that. There's CUNY Career Success, there's, there is New York City College Line, there's New York State Career Zone. 

There are a whole lot of platforms out there when you check the online, that their main goal is to help students make appropriate decisions as to where they want to be in future, what is their career path. Whether it's through sorting out online evaluations to find out their skills and aptitudes and abilities and interests and all them, and then then match them to the next best thing that might be available there for them. So, there's a whole lot of resources there. 

And, I can talk about, right Julian? A whole lot of information out there on your website. I was checking it and I was just, "Wow!" Presenters, the wealth of information, the links, the workshops that you offer in terms of time management and organization and studying skills. All these are tailored towards different learning styles, different learning disabilities, abilities, and so forth and so on. Then, there is the LDA, Learning Disability Association of America, a huge organization. I've been familiar with them for years and years. 

There's Landmark College, which is a college for learning disability students, and they actually offer workshops, trainings and for event professionals that are already in the field. Then there's LD Online. So, there's a whole lot of resources out there. When you go out there and check, "How am I going to help my son or daughter transition with certain type of disabilities?" 

Julian: Listeners, I hope you are all taking copious notes because Sudi just dropped some gems. She gave an entire list. Don't worry, if you weren't taking notes we will link all of the things that she mentioned in our show notes. Really quick expert tip for our listeners: When you're in the midst of an IEP meeting, you should definitely ask for career exploration. 

What is career exploration look like for your child? And that can be as early as fifth or sixth grade and as late as 12th grade. But definitely ask for career exploration and opportunities for career exploration to be written into the IEP. Because that's going to really encourage the idea of exposure. Everything that Sudi was mentioning, relates to the idea of exposure. Our students need to be exposed to all the different options they have out there, and this is going to help the transition process because it gives your child agency, so they can have a part in figuring out what is it that they want to do. 

It's not just about what you want for them, it's about what they want for themselves. One of the proud parts of the school I'm blessed to serve, is that I am able to help students have career exposures to a variety of careers throughout the city of Philadelphia. And we're able to send our students out to different internships, and they are able to earn industry certifications. So, many students can graduate with the certification in a career of their choice. 

And if they choose to go to college, they can do that. If they choose to go to work, we hope that they prepare them for that too. But the key is exposing them. And so, I'm wondering as we're thinking about this idea of exposure and transition, what's another challenge you see as students are transitioning into a college space? 

Sudi: The first year is extremely difficult for students that they feel like an outsider, that they don't belong there because they don't know enough about college environment. And the reasons was that — with or without a disability — was what we talked earlier about, lack of familiarity with the college environment. And it wasn't so much about the students' ability to study and learn. It was a lot about the students' lack of information about the differences between college and high school, and the differences that we talked about also about the whole structure. So, we see that a lot. We see that. 

So, a lot of campuses like Hunter, we have a hub for students. We have a center where students can actually come hang out while working on their homework assignments or taking exams, but meeting other students, collaborating with other students. 

We also have transitional, not transitional, but mentoring programs. Where there is one-on-one mentoring using graduate students, whether is a mentoring program for students on the spectrum. But actually having someone that is more senior to them, sit with them, talk with them, show them the loops, and tell them, "Don't worry, we were where you are right now, but you gonna learn it." But, get their minds ready before they get there. That these are the things we need to do. Proactivity in that term is very important. 

Julian: So, Sudi, I want to ask a real-life scenario question. Let's say that my daughter is graduating high school with the class of 2024, and she has decided that she is going to matriculate at Hunter College. And let's say my daughter has a current IEP in 12th grade, and the IEP has support services for ADHD. Let's just use that for examples. 

What does it look like for the time that she leaves high school until August of 2024, when she packs her bags and shows up at one of your beautiful dormitories? What kind of support services would happen while she's still in high school? What would happen during her first year? Like, what is that going to look like? What can I expect as a parent in terms of support services? 

Sudi: So, I would definitely have their guidance counselor or other counselors, to have their IEP, 504 and Psychoeducation evaluations ready. Hand it to them and tell them how important it is that these documentations to be shared to the Office of Disability Services once they get to college. That's very important. Sometimes students come in and register with our offices, and we have to send them back to collect certain documentations. They don't even know what those documentations are. They don't know which office has them. 

They don't even know some, some of the students don't even know what kind of disabilities, you know, they were diagnosed with. A lot of them coming into our offices when they come in from high school, they come in blank, completely. Not knowledgeable about what's going on with them or what's written in their documentations. It's very important that they get familiar with their documentations, their disabilities, and why they need these accommodations. That's very important. 

And telling them that, yes, this is yours. Put it in your bag, save it somewhere in your bedroom. So, the day you go to college, the first stop you make after you get accepted to that college. Take a copy of this to the Office of Disability and meet with someone and discuss what is available to you. So, that's step one. 

Julian: Got it. So, find the Office of Disability at whatever college you're attending, and bring copies of your IEP and any other evaluative work with you so that they can have that on file. 

Sudi: And then, as soon as you — some offices are larger than others — but I'm sure someone is going to be assigned as advisor or a counselor, and have a conversation. Participate in student clubs, participate if they have any time management, study skills workshops. I would say, take advantage of any kind of a workshop there are out there that get you familiar with what college life is about. You know, go to orientation meetings, go to welcome meetings. And anything that the college has set up for freshmen students entering the college. 

A lot of times the students miss these orientation activities and later on — or they don't even know who their academic advisors are — so they have to get somewhere or they have to go meet the advising office, meet the Office of Disability Services and all that. It's not just about taking classes and passing the courses, is really about also getting to learn about the resources that are available on campus. And go into those offices and get familiar and get to meet someone and have a conversation. 

Julian: Got it, got it. Now that, you know, my hypothetical daughter — which, by the way, my daughter's only eight years old, so I have a long way off for this — but let's think my hypothetical daughter is there. She has gotten to know her mentor at the Office of Disability Services. She's thriving, but one of her friends also has an IEP, and one of her friends might be struggling. What kind of programs or resources do you know of that our listeners can really rely on to be effective? 

Sudi: Well, their best resource while on campus is the Office of Disability Services. Because they do workshops and trainings. They do one-on-one, they do group. They do actually sit down with the student and explore the documentations and go through what is doable, what is not, in terms of their skills and abilities, and interests. 

But yes, there are these organizations out there that I mentioned to you like or New York City College Line. They can go and have a private mentor or private, you know, advisor or hire even someone to consult with. But when in college, the best the student can do is take advantage of the accommodation provided, and when they can, have a conversation. 

Julian: Got it. So, listeners, Office of Disability Services. They should be at any higher education institute that you are choosing to attend. All right, Sudi, last question. Just thinking about this entire conversation we're having about the idea of transitioning into higher education. And you shared a wealth of resources. You shared some very clear steps for families to take. Is there anything that you can think of that educators or parents or students or all three together can work together to ensure that adequate support systems are in place for students with disabilities. 

Sudi: The first thing I would say, let's respect our difference. 

Julian: Yeah, that's a word. Respect our differences. Yeah. 

Sudi: And the second is, collaborate. Communicate, collaborate. During the collaboration process, involve the student in the conversation. Don't make just decisions without the student sitting there. And you might think you know them better than them, but you don't. They know exactly who they are, what they can and cannot do. 

One thing we do when we sit with a student or have a conversation with them we'll say, "Tell me about what is it that you feel like you cannot do in the class? Explain to me what happens when you try to listen. Explain to me when you're trying to listen and take notes. Explain to me what happens when you are taking exams." They know. Maybe they cannot verbalize it the way we want to, but they know exactly what's happening to them. Then with that information, you can work. You can understand how this disability is hitting the student and how you can be helpful to them. 

So, clear communication, having a clear communication channel, involve the student in this planning transition planning, and leave the channel for future communications and dialog open with the educators, with parents, with the students. Just making sure that everyone understands the students' needs. And, that this whole collaboration process empowers everybody. 

Empowers the students, empowers educators, the parents, and, it's like a joint advocacy process for the student. And no one would benefit more than the student, of course. And I think during this process, everyone learned so much from each other. I mean, the family learns from educators, the educators learn from specialists, the specialists learn from the family. So, the student learns from all of them. So, this collaboration is really big. 

Julian: Sorry, I can't thank you enough. You know, this being your first podcast experience, I think you were made for this. You have such a soothing voice, and you might want to consider getting one started at Hunter College. To our listeners out there, if you have a high school student that's looking for a college experience, I would strongly advocate you take a look at Hunter, because Sudi will definitely take care of you. 

And the Office of Disabilities across colleges around the country are doing great work. And the key is that, if you have a child that is interested in going to college, you can go. They should go and there will be support there when they get there. So, do not think that having a disability or having a learning and thinking difference should bar you or prohibit you from going to college. You're going to do just fine. 

Before we go, I do have some resources from Understood to share: "After high school: Different ways to thrive." It's an article by the amazing Understood team. And "7 things to know about college disability services." Another article that you can find on Sudi, thank you again so much. I really appreciate you. 

Sudi: Thank you so much Julian for this opportunity. I really enjoyed this time. And I feel like that there was a lot to share, I understand. But one thing that I would really encourage everyone to do is ask questions, ask questions, ask questions. Don't take no for an answer. 

Don't just go for they say, "Well, he cannot do it. He should not do it or whatever they might say." Even in college, you can ask why. You can ask why. You can say, "OK, I understand. What is the next best option because I don't want to just leave it at that. So, what is the best I can do after this point on? Are there any vocational trainings if someone cannot make it in college?" Don't just shut it off. 

So, this conversation, this collaboration, this helping the student to get to know themselves, their skills, their abilities, their aptitudes. It's so important to have these realistic conversations. The family, and especially as advocates together and educate the student about themselves and what they can and what they cannot do, and how their disability affects their learning, so they can maximize on the services that are available for them out there. 

Julian: You heard it first, listeners. Have the conversation, have the communication to maximize the opportunity. Sudi, we appreciate you. Until next time listeners, thank you so much. 

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Ilana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show for the Understood Podcast Network. Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time. 


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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