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Master's Student Helping Others With Disabilities

By Emmi van Zoest

“You are not broken” is a principle both followed and taught by Poorvi Datta.

Datta, who will graduate from Cal State San Marcos with their master’s in biological sciences this May, has worked to overcome challenges with imposter syndrome and their own diagnosis of a disability a few years ago. Now they’re working to help others battling disabilities.

Datta has worked in several different places to fuel their experience at CSUSM, including helping with multiple biology courses, serving as graduate mentor for the Summer Scholars program and working as a tutor.

Those efforts have paid off. Last fall, Datta won the CSUSM Social Innovation Challenge and in January they won the Crellin Pauling Student Teaching Award.

“I always liked learning,” said Datta, who uses they/them pronouns. “Every class that I took added a lens in terms of how I see the world. I see a leaf and I see all of its different parts and I see the physics and the chemistry that comes together to make it, and it's a wonderful thing.”

Datta enrolled at CSUSM for graduate school after earning their bachelor’s from UC Davis for multiple reasons, including access to faculty who does research in their field and CSUSM’s proximity to their family.

“I’m a person with disabilities and I’m from San Diego,” they said. “My entire family is here and I needed that support system.”

Datta studies how to make higher education (particularly STEM) classrooms more accessible for students with disabilities. 

Currently a peer mentor in STEM, Datta has been interested in both the fields of STEM and education since they were a young teenager. Since this initial interest, Datta has taken on several roles that gave them experience and made them more well rounded as an educator.

“Exposure to different types of people’s experiences helps you understand how to be more empathetic and kind toward them as a person,” Datta said. “You realize these things that you might never experience and you start to notice those factors and begin to recognize the telltale signs of people struggling or needing help and recognize that better in the future.”

Datta produced an impressive project for CSUSM’s Social Innovation Challenge, an ideation competition in which students compete to solve real-world problems.

“My thesis is on how closed captioning affects the academic experiences of students with disabilities and STEM classrooms,” Datta said. “My business proposal was on how we can integrate that realistically and logically into higher education.”

Datta’s project has been in the works since their senior year of undergrad, stemming from an honors thesis during COVID when they saw how the pandemic affected people with chronic and physical disabilities and neurodivergent challenges. Some of their friends did not adjust well to the new climate while others (like Datta) thrived in an online learning environment.

The project has continued to grow. Datta has conducted extensive research and found ways to help students, including through recorded lectures with captions. Datta then looked for ways to get the project into action.

But Datta knows that change is slow.

“I had sections in my proposal for what we should do if my proposal wouldn't work, because I recognized that it was too ideal,” Datta said. “I want to get these resources universally implemented into as many institutions as possible, and that is a lot of money and a lot of coordination. With the amount of cooperation required, it's hard.” 

Datta had to use a deeper-level thinking process, focusing on whether institutions even had the resources needed to put their plan to action and whether it was equitable to ask instructors to do these tasks. 

As the first-place winner, Datta was awarded $500 and an opportunity to share their project, build their resume and get involved in networking. 

Datta cares deeply about making education accessible. They not only have their winning social innovation project, they also have been a graduate teaching assistant for over a year instructing labs, holding office hours and developing tools for their students to succeed. 

Beyond just the logistical roles of being an educator, Datta really stands out in the impression they leave on their students - being real. 

“I had a student tell me, ‘You’re like the first human professor I’ve had,’ ” Datta said. “I make mistakes and I have difficult days. I joke with my students and share struggles I had when learning the same materials and taking the same classes.” 

When students are learning a difficult subject or in a difficult class, honesty and relatability from their teachers can make a world of difference. Instead of being discouraged, students are more likely to improve, leading them to thrive. Datta also urges their students to find a healthy balance.

“I always encourage my students to prioritize their mental health,” Datta said, “but get the degree, do whatever you have to do, keep your head down. Take your time, but get the degree.” 

Not only have Datta’s students recognized their hard work, but so has their mentor, biology professor Mallory Rice.

“They care deeply about not only improving the experiences of students in their own classroom, but all students that cross their path,” Rice said. “Poorvi’s advocacy has even had a profound impact on my teaching and influenced me to integrate practices into my own classroom to improve students’ experiences.”

In January, Datta won the Crellin Pauling Student Teaching Award, which acknowledges those who show student teaching achievement in the field of biotechnology. The award branches across to students from any CSU, yet only two are selected. Winners received $2,000 and an invitation to attend the CSU Biotechnology Symposium. Datta’s acceptance speech had a strong impact on the audience.

 “I had so many people coming up to me and telling me about it when I had this moment, where I realized words have power,” Datta said, “I spoke for three minutes and impacted people in a way that's really significant and meaningful, and that was eye-opening for me.  

“Receiving this award means a lot. I put in so much work and I care so much about my students. Having your work recognized when you have imposter syndrome, that type of external validation can be very significant.”

As someone who deals with disabilities themselves, Datta understands the challenges that one goes through and incorporates these experiences into their teachings.

“I have a lot of flexibility with my students, and I also ask my students to be flexible with me,” Datta said, “The most important advice I would give to any student with disabilities is to spend less time thinking about how to fix yourself, assuming that you're broken, and spend more time trying to figure out how to be compassionate to yourself and how you can succeed because you deserve it.” 

Datta was recently admitted to the integrated life sciences Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia for the fall and intends to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience. Their ultimate goal is to become a teaching professor of biology. This career would allow Datta to continue their research and develop evidence-based recommendations that would help institutions retain more students with disabilities in STEM.

 After spending years of their life learning how to adapt to and grow through challenges, Datta wants to share their understanding with others.

“Sometimes situations can be unfair and it’s not your fault,” Datta said, “Being kind to yourself and giving yourself the space to be human and asking for things you need from the people you feel safe asking from will always yield you success because you deserve it, and all of us are capable of being successful.” 

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Eric Breier, Interim Assistant Director of Editorial and External Affairs

ebreier@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7314