Advocate for students with disabilities wins national service award

Bea Awoniyi

For her standout leadership on behalf of students with disabilities, the director of the Florida State University Student Disability Resource Center (SDRC) has been honored at the national level with the highest award bestowed by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD).

Bea Awoniyi, who also serves as an assistant dean of students, is this year’s winner of the Ronald E. Blosser Dedicated Service Award. She was formally recognized at the AHEAD national conference, held recently in Seattle. The Blosser Award honors individual members of AHEAD whose work on behalf of the association has been marked by selfless and outstanding service.

"Dr. Awoniyi is a tremendous asset to Florida State University and to the field," said FSU Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Coburn. "We are so pleased that her good work has been nationally affirmed in this way."

AHEAD President Jean Ashmore praised Awoniyi’s commitment and leadership, which she called "profound and central in many ways to the association’s growth."

"Bea Awoniyi has been a leader in diversity initiatives and a champion and facilitator of international engagement for AHEAD, a mentor to others in our field be they seasoned or newer, and a major leader at the state level who contributed significantly to the establishment of Florida’s affiliate association and its continued wellbeing," Ashmore said.

"That I’ve been honored with this national award really speaks to the caliber of professionals at Florida State University and the opportunities and support my colleagues and I are given to grow and contribute beyond our community," said Awoniyi, who recently concluded a term on the AHEAD Board of Directors and now will serve as chair of the association’s Standing Committee on Membership.

"I can think of no one more deserving of this award than Bea Awoniyi," said FSU Associate Dean of Students Robin Leach. "She empowers students, while also holding them accountable."

A former elementary school teacher, Awoniyi has directed the SDRC at Florida State since 2005. She and her staff serve as advocates for FSU students with disabilities and work to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided for them.

Awoniyi was drawn to her current role by her belief in the power of diversity and inclusion and her fascination with collaborative learning.

"I’m always curious to see whose voice is missing, and to understand why," she said.

While ultimately it’s all about the students and the quality of their experience at FSU, Awoniyi said the SDRC mission is multipronged.

"One of the most important aspects of our center’s focus on education is helping the university community to understand the value of disability in our efforts to fully embrace diversity and inclusiveness," she said. "When we are negotiating access for students, we share the responsibility for inclusion with everyone in their respective roles."

Awoniyi believes that FSU’s commitment to shared responsibility is a philosophy many institutions strive for but haven’t yet fully achieved.

"When it comes to access and engagement, FSU ‘gets it,’" she said. "We are student-focused, student-centered. We embrace and welcome student diversity. We value our students by listening to them, and we are true to our philosophy of inclusion by educating ourselves to serve them more fully and effectively.

"Many institutions, public and private, talk about student engagement," Awoniyi said. "FSU walks the talk."

She points to FSU’s state-of-the-art disability resource center and exceptional team of dedicated staff as examples of the university’s commitment to access and engagement — a commitment shared by the student body and Student Government Association, which recently purchased an accessible van to provide on-campus transportation assistance. Other examples include FSU’s Strozier Library, which provides assistive technology and dedicated space for students to use it.

As the start of the 2011-2012 academic year approaches, the SDRC is promoting its group support for Florida State students with disabilities.

Among those initiatives is a collaborative effort of the SDRC, the University Counseling Center, and the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, which for the past three years has provided support for students with ADHD. Given the program’s success, Awoniyi said it now would be extended to students with all types of disabilities.

"We also will be offering a mentoring program to ease the transition of new students and get them connected faster and more fully to campus life," she said.