Each academic year brings many new faces to the community at the College of William and Mary. This fall, one of those new faces is Director of Student Accessibility Services and Associate Dean of Students Kara Fifield.
Fifield boasts a background in counseling psychology and previously aspired to be a therapist before pivoting to disability services while attending graduate school at Bethel University.
“It was something I was a bit nervous about, but when I started meeting with students every day, I knew this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing because I wasn’t getting paid and I loved it.”
“When I was in graduate school, I did an internship in disability and I knew nothing at the time,” Fifield said. “It was something I was a bit nervous about, but when I started meeting with students every day, I knew this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing because I wasn’t getting paid and I loved it.”
Entering her 10th year working in higher education, Fifield cited the unique age of college students as a motivator in her career.
“Because I have little kids, it’s hard to work with kids and come home to kids. So, when you have college students, there’s still that developmental stage from 18 to 22 that happens, which really excites me,” she said.
Following her internship, Fifield began working her way up the ladder, beginning as a graduate assistant. Upon graduating from Bethel University, the college created a position for her as a disability specialist. The following year, Fifield became interim director of Disability Services and served three years as director of the department. As director, Fifield oversaw a team of five.
“I think that’s one thing that is really unique about me is that I have done every sort of role in this field, and not everybody has,” she said.
Fifield recalled one of her favorite projects at Bethel, which was a program named “Compass.” The program matched students on the autism spectrum with peer mentors.
“We would do monthly outings together such as SkyZone, bowling or something else,” Fifield said. “That was something that was really important to me, that students not only get accommodations, but they start to develop social connections on campus because those students are not always ones that are going out.”
Following five years at Bethel, Fifield decided to look for new opportunities. She accepted a position at Lake Forest College in 2019 as the director of Disability Services. In this role, she had only one other colleague on her team.
Roughly a year and a half ago, Fifield began another national job search.
“I knew that I needed to keep growing in my career and there weren’t any opportunities at my last school to do that,” Fifield said.
She came across the open position at the College, and the opportunity to serve as both director of SAS and associate dean of students intrigued her. At the time, Fifield knew little about the College, but she said her visit to campus played a key role in accepting the position.
“I was a little bit nervous because I didn’t know much about William and Mary,” Fifield said. “I didn’t have a context of what the culture was like, but when I was on campus, I could just feel it. I took some time, I walked around campus, and I’m like, ‘I could see myself here.’ When I asked about the people, when I met the staff and asked how they were treated, it was so positive. That’s something that’s important to me, is to be somewhere that has a good culture for staff, because that’s not always the case.”
“I didn’t have a context of what the culture was like, but when I was on campus, I could just feel it. I took some time, I walked around campus, and I’m like, ‘I could see myself here.’ When I asked about the people, when I met the staff and asked how they were treated, it was so positive.”
Coming to Williamsburg, Fifield also appreciated the smaller details of the College’s attitude towards SAS, particularly regarding the department’s name.
“That’s something I’m excited about here, too, is that it’s already ‘accessibility services,’ and I don’t need to make that change because that’s a big deal,“ Fifield said. ”There will always be a stigma about disabilities. With ‘accessibility services,’ that takes the burden off to know we’re here for access and want to make sure students get that support.”
At the College, Fifield plans to take a student-centered approach. She explained the importance of moving away from a medical model and more towards a social justice model.
“Instead of an intake appointment, I’m calling them ‘welcome meetings,’” Fifield said. “We want students to feel like we can have a conversation. It’s not just sit down, tell me what you need, we’re going to actually talk together, get to know you and create a plan together. I want it to be a collaborative, interactive process.”
Fifield will oversee a larger staff of five team members within SAS. She discussed the importance of having a strong team dynamic.
”One of the biggest things for me is that as a team dynamic, people are cross-trained,” Fifield said. “That way, everybody knows how to do everyone else’s jobs, which is something that does not usually happen. I want to make sure that my staff knows what to do if someone is not there and they can help students as well. We also have our testing center that gets run out of the office and that takes a lot of time and support. It’s important to figure out what my team’s strengths are and what their interests are, so I want to keep developing that and help them move forward in their careers.”
“It’s important to figure out what my team’s strengths are and what their interests are, so I want to keep developing that and help them move forward in their careers.”
Last year, SAS encountered difficulties with processing student requests and accommodations, leading to widespread calls for improvements. Fifield said she is aware of last year’s struggles and is entering into the job with open arms.
“I know last year was hard and I’m trying to be really sensitive towards that, but I also want to have a fresh start,” Fifield said. “The reason I was picked was the vision I have, which is really student focused. That’s something that I’ve always done, no matter what school I worked at, is making sure that there’s less red tape and students get what they need.”
In direct response to the struggles with wait times last year, Fifield is prioritizing cutting down wait times for accommodations. She noted that this is especially important over the next several weeks when SAS focuses much of their attention on sending accommodation letters out and ensuring students have the resources they need to begin the semester.
In line with her vision to put students first, Fifield has more immediate goals, as well as more long-term initiatives she hopes to implement. First, she detailed her plans to leverage the Student Advisory Council, which will consist of 10 students with disabilities that will meet with Fifield once a month to promote communication between students and the administration.
“We want to figure out what are the things they’re saying, get advice from them and make sure that we’re having student voices being heard,” Fifield said.
Additionally, Fifield hopes to leverage the student spaces in the SAS office within Sadler Center.
“We want to make sure students come here for more than just appointments,” Fifield said. “That’s something that’s important.”
When discussing her onboarding process, Fifield noted that she still needs to learn more about the College itself.
“I was picked because of my expertise,” Fifield said. “Coming here, I’m really sensitive to what happened before, but I’m also making sure students get what they need and are not waiting.”
Serving as both director of SAS and associate dean of students, Fifield juggles many responsibilities.
“My goal is really to support [Dean of Students] Stacey [Harris], to make sure she gets what she needs, because I’m part of her Dean’s Council, but I am also on the Care Team, too,” Fifield said. “I help out with those kinds of cases and concerns, so I’m looking at all students, but my main focus is students with disabilities and making sure that’s running well.”
Fifield said Harris’ extensive background in disability services is rare to find in the field, and she has relied on Harris as a support system in her first few weeks on the job.
While at the College, Fifield hopes to connect with students outside of her regular duties by attending community events.
“I want to be a part of the community and not just focus on students with disabilities,” Fifield said. “When I make decisions, I do focus on students with disabilities, but if we can do the universal model and it helps all students, then that’s great.”
In her free time, Fifield enjoys traveling. She lives in Williamsburg and has four children.