Like a lighthouse guiding ships safely away from the rocky shores, Jessica Burnett ’09 & ’11 has been a beacon of stability for her students—giving them the support they need to succeed while dealing with disabilities that could otherwise stand in their way.
The SUNY Potsdam alumna, who holds both a bachelor’s degree in art education and a master’s degree in education, supports more than 250 students in her role as assistant director of Accommodative Services. Throughout the semester, students with documented disabilities turn to Burnett for assistance with everything from residence life accommodations to academic accommodations focused on improving time management skills and offering alternate testing options.
“When students are taking a test in class, watching everyone finish, and they’re only on the third question, they’re going to shut down. Some students need extended time on their tests, and some students need their tests read to them, so we allow them to do that in my office, or a separate location near their professor,” Burnett explained.
To better meet the needs of her students, Burnett has been actively involved in professional development since she started in Accommodative Services in 2019—recently taking 25 online training sessions focused on serving students with disabilities. “When the pandemic hit in 2020, I realized that there were all these zoom classes. I wanted to absorb as much knowledge as I possibly could,” she said.Her extensive training caught the attention of the New York State Disability Service Council (NYSDSC). The organization presented her with the New Professional Award this summer, which recognizes an individual who is self-motivated and who seeks out resources and training opportunities to improve their job.
“Ultimately, I want to help the students, I want them to succeed here, have a good time, and enjoy Potsdam the way I did.”
Burnett has been collaborating with other departments to improve accessibility at the College. Recently working with College Communications, she has spearheaded a project to produce an accessibility map for students who are physically impaired, and through her involvement with the Classroom Accommodation Committee, she has been working to improve classrooms on campus by adding accessible podiums and desks. “We’re trying to create classroom environments here that are suitable for a number of students,” she said. “Through that, we’re also working on a policy so that all of our signs can be ADA accessible with braille.”
Burnett’s leadership experience first started when she was a student at SUNY Potsdam, working as a peer mentor in Residence Life. She loved connecting with students one-on-one, helping them select classes, and mapping out their four-year plan. “Building that support network for my students is what I did as a peer mentor, and is what I continue to do now in Accommodative Services,” she said. “Residence life taught me a lot of leadership skills, and made me step out of my comfort zone. It was an amazing experience. Annette Robbins, who I work with now, was the person who ran a lot of that, so coming back and getting to work with the person I really admired has been really fun.”
As an undergraduate student, in addition to her work in Residence Life, she also led a gymnastics program for elementary school students while completing her degree in art education. She remembers spending late nights working art projects with her classmates in Brainerd Hall, and then learning ways to teach art to primary and secondary education students. “I loved my experience here at Potsdam. I liked the professors and I always thought they were wonderful,” she said.
In graduate school, she continued to build a strong foundation in education under the leadership of professors like Professor Emerita Dr. Sandy Chadwick, a former literacy professor in the School of Education and Professional Studies. “She was the first teacher I ever had who stated that she herself had a disability. Here she was, renowned for all the things she could do with literacy, and she had dyslexia. I always thought that was a wonderful thing, because typically you look at your professors and you think this comes easy for them, and it’s not, and that’s something that I really admired about her,” Burnett said.
Chadwick taught her about a multifaceted approach to education, and the idea of presenting students with numerous tools to help them be successful. “She was a great professor. She told us, ‘Give your students 10 things to look at and something will catch their eye.’ I have a lot of students who have time management issues, and that’s something that I translate into my current work,” Burnett said.
After getting her master’s degree in education in 2011, Burnett moved to Long Island where she worked as a substitute teacher for four years. When she came home at the end of the day, and reflected on her time in the classroom, it was always the one-on-one interaction with students that she loved the most. In 2017 she returned to Northern New York, and accepted a position in SUNY Potsdam’s TRIO program, which provides students with academic tutors, mentors, and time management skills. “Being a former student, I could say, ‘I took this class with that professor, and you’re probably going to need to do this. It comes back to building that support with students, and telling them, ‘I’ve literally done that, sat in that room, just like you’re doing,’” she said.
In 2019 she was hired in Accommodative Services, where her focus has shifted to helping students with disabilities. As the fall semester gets underway, she’s gearing up to support hundreds of students once again seeking assistance both in and out of the classroom. “I’m here to listen to students and help solve their problems,” she said. “My happiness comes from watching other people succeed.”
To learn more about Accommodative Services visit:
Article and photos by Jason Hunter