Alice Wong, Project Coordinator of the Disability Visibility Project, interviewed Eric Koenig, former Director of the Office of Student Life at the University of California, San Francisco, on October 25, 2014 at StoryCorps San Francisco.
In 1987 there were two students with disabilities at University of California, San Francisco. By 2013, there were over 150 students with disabilities. As a new student to UCSF in the late 1990s, Eric was one of the first people from the school that Alice met.
This is the first of two blog posts. Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
How Alice first met Eric as a prospective grad student in 1996
Alice: I was a prospective student thinking about going to UCSF and I recall distinctly being very apprehensive, especially being from the Midwest and contemplating a move and the idea of going to graduate school plus having a visible disability, worrying about housing, you know, just basic how to live questions.
And I made a cold call through the directory, found your name, and you called me back. And I remember it was like, in the evening in Indiana, and you were just, so open and willing to talk about you know, the challenges and what UCSF could realistically offer me and I think, to me, that was just a revelation because it was…such a generous and wonderful gesture to have this conversation and it really gave me some sense that there was a possibility that I should pursue this. So that led to a trip out to UCSF where I met with you and I think we talked a lot about what if, what kind of plans would need to be made if I was accepted. So you know, we’re not assuming I was accepted, but if I was, what were the plans in place that we would have to make?
Eric: I remember we had a number of conversations and I guess I had been waiting to meet you before you contacted me and I didn’t know who, who would actually call, and you were the caller that I was expecting for a few years previous to your call. In some ways our timing was very good, because there were accessibility issues at the university and you were asking about some very specific issues that needed to be resolved… housing in particular and I think we both quickly understood one another that there was a very collaborative style to begin with in our conversation and, as you articulated some of your concerns, I was able to articulate either how we could accommodate you, or at least an attitude and a willingness to accommodate
Eric: And so I think you know, our largely, our main issue was really about how accessible housing, of which there really wasn’t any appropriate, accessible housing.
Alice: …as I recall it was right around that time the Aldea San Miguel student housing was still being built and I think that would have been the accessible housing, but it was not available yet. So I think you know, the main message that you communicated to me was that UCSF is somewhat small and unique [and] the sense that you know, we can definitely figure things out together.
Alice: And I feel like UCSF, at that time when I applied, was at a really interesting moment where I was able to get really customized, individualized assistance and that’s really unique. I know that, you know, once I was accepted, things were put into motion. You connected me with the Director of Housing and they…did some renovations to faculty housing on Fifth Avenue which is only a block away from the main campus…within several months, I believe, the Housing Department was able to retrofit a bathroom and that apartment was already was on a garage ground floor, but it was really, getting an accessible bathroom….that was a major thing to do, because that takes a long time to institute any sort of change or renovation and the fact that UCSF was committed to having this done before I arrived really meant a lot to me as a student because, you know, I already felt so, [LAUGH] you know, really like, singular in a lot of ways.
I did realize that I was not the first student with a physical disability at UCSF, but I feel like [one of the few]. There have been others, right, to your knowledge?
Eric: Yeah…the campus was an interesting mix of being kind of, behind the curve in terms of being accessible, but also, we did really well in responding when students were coming with you know, whatever needs that they may have that we were not equipped to deal with. And so I think what I was trying to communicate to you in our phone calls was, if you’re willing to be a pioneer and be the first one and understand that change will need to occur, I believed that the change would occur. And so we weren’t accessible, or we weren’t properly accessible [LAUGH] I should say, but by being present and by being willing to accept some temporary accommodations that you and your family were very gracious about, you understood that by…coming to campus, that the campus would then make the changes that, that were you know, appropriate and accessible.
On partnerships between students and staff
Eric: I just wanna comment on…your ability to connect with people and to educate and advocate and to assess an institutional environment and to your instincts around how to prompt change are just superb. And you’re also extremely adaptive figuring out, you know, who the allies are, and how to, you know, how to connect with steering committees, advisory groups and so those are really important attributes. And it’s not always easy for people with disabilities who are in environments [that are] not as accommodating as they would like it to be. It really represented a really positive model of change…how to connect with the members of the community and to help them understand some of the challenges and really affect change that improve the environment for everyone, not just people with disabilities.
Alice: Well, I really do feel like we were equal partners in this. And that’s what most people wouldn’t imagine [between] a student and an administrator, you know, having this kind of power relationship, but I really feel like we both worked so well together at these broader aims. And you know, maybe part of is there was this opening, but I think part of it too is the institutional culture at UCSF. When I arrived in ‘97, there were still a lot of issues and, you know, that was all laid out clearly for me and I accepted it and I thought, “I think I can work with the people on campus to make it a better place.”
Eric: The style and attitude with which I used to approach my job, or at least, my area of services for students with disabilities, was really that the students were the experts and I needed to know from each student what their needs were…especially in cases when, you know, we hadn’t served a student with a particular disability or requiring a certain kind of accommodation or facing a certain set of challenges…I was always interested in knowing what the student was interested in what’s worked before. I got a lot of guidance from students and I got a lot from you.
Looking back at over 25 years of providing services for students with disabilities
Alice: …thinking back over your career, what are some highlights of things you are most proud of in terms of providing services for students with disabilities?
Eric: … there’s a lot of things that I’m proud of…some things that stand out is that we provided educational support services for a number of Deaf students in pharmacy and dentistry and that’s a particularly difficult area to provide accommodations…the level of service that we are able to provide was what was needed for a Deaf student to be successful and it was a much higher and more focused and labor-intensive level of service than, the University, I think, was obligated to provide.
…over time we developed a very, very sophisticated program for students with learning disabilities and there’s probably 100 students there now.
Alice: That’s awesome.
Eric: And many students who are enrolled who have learning disabilities…they’re so bright and so capable and used compensatory strategies before they came to UCSF that they didn’t encounter the problems until they encountered such a rigorous curriculum. And so I think in years past, a lot of students would ultimately not do well and go away and we developed very proactive outreach mechanisms…we created a very, very healthy environment, a very proactive environment and hired exceptional learning specialists, and I think we wound up saving a lot of careers and [in the end helped] a lot of students with learning disabilities graduate and go on to become outstanding providers.
Eric Koenig had a 35-year career in student services on three University of California campuses. He served as the Director of the Office of Student Life at the University of California, San Francisco for 25 years where he was responsible for a group of diverse student services including Student Disability Services. Eric retired from UCSF in 2013. He is a lover of all things Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Alice Wong is a Staff Research Associate, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Alice works on various research projects for the Community Living Policy Center, a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Administration for Community Living. She is an author of online curricula for home care providers and caregivers for Elsevier’s College of Personal Assistance and Caregiving. Currently, she is the Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project: A Community Partnership with StoryCorps.