As a first-year student at Curry College, Tiana Delano '20 was 'terrified' to speak in class or in front of others. "I was so nervous. I used to be the student who would physically run away when it was time to present in class."
Yet, last month, the former psychology major made history as the first recent graduate to present on her undergraduate research at the 2020 Annual World Congress on Learning Disabilities Conference speaking to academic experts, special education teachers, clinicians, mental health professionals, and individuals with learning disabilities and their families, among other attendees. Held virtually in early September, the global conference is led by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW), the premier professional organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with learning disabilities through the development of scholarly works and evidence-based practices.
Rooted in her experiences as a special education student and backed by her independent research, Delano presented the paper, "Living with a Learning Disability and Neurodevelopmental Disorder: An Individual's Desire to Overcome Adversities." The presentation reviewed the impact of a learning disability on an individual and the influence of traumatic school experiences and mental health disorders on student performance.
"Tiana picked her topic," says Psychology Professor Dr. Ann Marie Leonard-Zabel, who also presented a paper at the conference and serves as one of the LDW Board of Directors. "She decided to speak to her own experiences with the hopes to help professionals understand how theory affects the practice of living with a disability. I encouraged her to apply to the LDW conference committee to petition to present her paper. It was such a joy to see her work be accepted.”
Following her presentation, Delano was commended by LDW's leadership and was invited to join a scholarly committee, and publish her work in the scientific journal, Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal. "This is a wonderful honor for her and especially touches my heart. I am so proud of Tiana," adds Dr. Leonard-Zabel, who served as her advisor and mentor for the four years she studied at Curry.
It's that unique mentorship that Delano credits for her success at Curry and beyond. Today, the young alumna works as a therapeutic mentor, training, and support staff member at the North Suffolk Mental Health Association in Revere, Mass., where she helps young children and families with mental health services.
"Before coming to Curry and meeting Dr. Ann, I always felt that I couldn't succeed because I was more 'different' than my peers," she says. As a young student, Delano was diagnosed with a speech impediment, and later with dyslexia and ADHD. "There were many times when I would go to Dr. Ann wanting to give up and call it quits. She got to know me and understood me on a deeper level. If I needed more support beyond the classroom, she was always there. Dr. Ann was the one who believed in me when I didn't even know how to begin to believe in myself."
The close student-faculty mentorship is a hallmark of Curry College, and an experience faculty are committed to providing to their students. "I take my mentorship very seriously with students and colleagues that I have the honor to support," says Dr. Leonard-Zabel. “Mentorship involves the professor and student on equal terms. It requires a level of trust to allow guidance and embrace opportunities. As such, I need to know the student is a serious pursuer of learning and is willing to take a challenge and embrace it. In my mind's eye, Tiana was that student. I witnessed a teen turn into an adult with a love of learning, as well as achieving."
For Delano, the support system extended beyond Dr. Leonard-Zabel. It included many from the Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) and the sociology, criminal justice, and psychology departments. "My professors and PAL pushed me when I didn't want to be pushed," she says. "PAL opened doors for me and taught me ways I could learn. Dr. (Laura) Vanderberg would sit down with me and review why certain things wouldn't work for my brain, but how other things did. If it weren't for PAL, I wouldn't have graduated with honors, and I think I wouldn't have graduated at all to be completely honest."
As for what's next for Delano, she feels empowered to help children and families faced with trauma or adversity but ultimately hopes her success story at Curry helps to motivate other students that might underestimate themselves. "College is a scary time for everyone, especially during the first year. It's often a new experience, and it's okay to get lost sometimes. What matters the most is when you find yourself and help others."