The number of opportunities available to students at Syracuse University are so numerous one can’t possibly come close to taking advantage of them all. With an overwhelming array of faculty, advising centers, classes, degree programs, student clubs and organizations, and events, students have the ability to explore their passions and grow in their knowledge and career capability. What if these opportunities were not available to everyone? If we were the first of our group to have access to college education and the opportunities at this university, would we be bold enough to seize those opportunities and chase what we love? Driven by determination, Andrew Benbenek is a student shaped by his passion for forging new paths into the unknown. A junior studying broadcast journalism, Andrew is an InclusiveU student. InclusiveU is an initiative of Syracuse University’s Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education that provides college education to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Though Syracuse has a long history of including students with disabilities on campus, InclusiveU which gives students the ability to earn a college certificate and be involved on campus was only started in 2014. This means the students in InclusiveU are continually making new steps and pushing boundaries of what it means to be a college student with a disability, and Andrew is the perfect example of that. He’s the first InclusiveU student to be enrolled in a Newhouse program, and he’s the first student in his major of broadcast journalism.
Benbenek doesn’t let the idea of being first in his field daunt him, saying “As a leader in InclusiveU, it’s to show younger students that ‘yes,’ some of the paths to majors are tougher than others but if you have that right set of mind and that right determination you have an opportunity here to do what you want and I feel like that is a big change in the disability field as a whole.“ He believes that students in InclusiveU should not be defined by their disability, but should simply be viewed as regular students who have equal opportunity to pursue their goals and be explore their interests.
Benbenek certainly doesn’t let anything hold him back, as demonstrated by his enthusiastic engagement with his passions on campus. Interested in radio and film, he works in the radio station Z89 where he helps produce their show “The Juice,” and also works in production for CitrusTV. Last summer, he photographed for the university’s high school summer programs, where high school students study on campus to have a taste of the college experience. He just applied to be a Remembrance Scholar, something he hopes to win because of the inspiring friends in his own life who have been awarded this scholarship.
Volunteering and giving back to a community has helped him is another essential part of Benbenek’s student experience. He volunteers with Camp Kesem, an organization which hosts camps for kids whose families have cancer. A member of Ottothon, he works in the hospital and family relations committee which raises funds for Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. “Doing stuff with the hospital is [because] they did and are still doing so much to help me be successful that I want to help them show the kids at the hospital now that when this stuff happens to you, your life isn’t over. There’s other opportunities out there.”
Benbenek has also worked with LaunchPad on a collaborative short film between LaunchPad, InclusiveU, and VPA film students. They created a film “Third Shift” that Benbenek assisted in the film and production with. It’s opportunities such as these that he’s passionate about delving into and loves the inclusive spirit of organizations such as LaunchPad across campus.
In speaking of his determination to try what’s new and participate in all the campus has to offer, Benbenek says, “I don’t know what draws me to doing what hasn’t been done before or what’s tough to do. It’s not what I can’t do, it’s what I can do to push as much as I can, that’s always been a big part of it. “ Benbenek’s commitment to try what hasn’t been done before and to push himself to accomplish what feels difficult serves as inspiration to students across campus that whatever barriers life holds; there’s a myriad of opportunities to discover and dive into, and there’s no end to what can be achieved through passion and dedication.
Story by LaunchPad Global Media Fellow Claire Howard
Photo by SU Globalists, used by permission