How Letty Vavasour creates impact through experience

June 25, 2024 | San Diego Community College District

With Disability Pride Month in July, it's a fitting time to highlight the contributions of a San Diego Community College District employee who draws from her lived experience as someone with a disability to inform her work championing disability inclusion in higher education and employment.

Letty Vavasour is wearing a black long sleeved top. She is outside surrounded by plants.
Letty Vavasour of the district's Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS) is a coordinator for the Perkins Innovation Grant.

Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS) proudly features Leticia "Letty" Vavasour, DSPS Perkins Innovation Grant Coordinator, whose contributions to the SDCCD community exemplifies the spirit of advocacy, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Disabled With a Capital D

In addition to her extensive professional background in nonprofit fundraising and rehabilitation counseling, Vavasour's journey is deeply intertwined with her personal experience of living with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a rare nerve disorder. This has not only shaped her professional perspective but has also provided her with a unique understanding of the students she serves, many who encounter obstacles in higher education and when entering the workforce.

Describing how she initially struggled to embrace her disability due to familial and social pressure to “push past” it and “try and fit in,” Vavasour eventually “found her place” as a graduate student at San Diego State University. By connecting with other disabled graduate students, she grew more comfortable sharing her story and embracing all layers of her identity. She now proudly identifies as “Disabled with a capital D!” (a phrase she heard a speaker use while attending the 2022 CAPED convention).

Reducing Barriers

In her position, Vavasour is tasked with reducing barriers for students with disabilities in Career Technical Education (CTE) programs. One recent project includes producing marketing videos showcasing DSPS students working and studying in their chosen fields to boost CTE enrollment and retention.

"Representation can be a motivating force when you feel alone in your journey," she said Vavasour.

Vavasour also emphasizes the significance of seeking open and supportive environments, and encourages SDCCD students with disabilities to identify and utilize such spaces.

“The Heart in Mind program is a good option available to all students with disabilities across SDCCD,” she said, referencing the Districtwide mental health wellness initiative led by DSPS counselor Lupita Lance.

A Trusted Resource

Vavasour's efforts extend beyond empowering disabled students to envision themselves in the workforce; she also aids employers in hiring candidates with disabilities. In the works this semester is an Employer Toolkit which aims to equip career counselors and employers alike with educational resources on landmark disability legislation, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and outlining the numerous benefits of tapping into this large and diverse talent pool.

“Students with disabilities face many barriers to employment,” said Vavasour. “Through our advocacy and partnerships in the community, DSPS has become a trusted resource.”

Disability as Diversity

As broader criticisms and legislation targeting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) within employment and education sectors threaten critical support offered by departments like DSPS, Vavasour believes that addressing attitudinal and environmental barriers to employment “should not be a controversy, but rather a call to action.”

On top of battling this external threat, she notes the internal challenge of achieving disability inclusion even within DEI initiatives.

“Very often, disabled students get lost or forgotten in conversations about DEI, but it is the most remarkable in terms of understanding impact, as 1 in 4 Americans lives with a disability.”

A Rich Tradition

Ableism and erasure unfortunately exists within most social justice frameworks and civil rights movements, including women’s rights. Therefore, it’s imperative to showcase how Vavasour's work aligns with a tradition wherein women belonging to multiple marginalized groups draw upon their personal (often inequitable and downright violent) experiences to innovate and advocate for more inclusive strategies that benefit their communities and societies at large. 

“What I’ve discovered,” she said, “is that my history, my struggles, and my culture, all contribute to the problem-solving attitude I bring to work, the way I approach students, and why I was attracted to this career path in the first place.”

Vavasour recognizes the significant influence of women who have played integral roles in shaping her own journey. Personally, her (late) grandmother and mother served as enduring sources of inspiration and motivation. Professionally, a (late) retired nurse friend named Anna offered invaluable mentorship during pivotal moments. Vavasour also resonates with prominent figures like Michelle Obama who demonstrate “incredible” commitment to their work.

“These women have all been influential at different points along the way, and I cherish their wisdom,” she said.

Reciprocal Rewards

Vavasour's story highlights the reciprocal rewards of working toward more equitable and inclusive academic and employment spaces. 

“The best part of my job is witnessing a student’s transformation from school to work,” said Vavasour. “When a student completes their educational goal and secures a job that they are proud of and enjoy, I am reminded of why I do this…I most sincerely believe that when I help empower a student, I am also empowering myself. It goes both ways!"

The ability to alchemize personal experiences into collective impact is just one example of how centering the voices of those with lived experiences of marginalization can yield profound, universal benefits. Thank you, Letty, for sharing your story and being such an important voice within the SDCCD community.

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