Meet CHAMP: A new mentorship program for students with chronic pain, illness, or disability

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The Chronic Health Allies Mentorship Program (CHAMP) will give students with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities the opportunity to make connections on campus.

Katharine Hubert and Talia Cohen are co-directors of CHAMP and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They met at a support group meeting for students with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities.

“I think that you need to have a certain level of comfort with your diagnosis, with your pain, with your disability to feel comfortable going to a support meeting with a lot of other people,” Talia said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for undergraduates to get mentoring and to get support, but in a one-on-one environment.”

CHAMP will pair up undergraduate and graduate students with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities. The pairings will meet at least once per month to share experiences, provide guidance, and get to know one another.

“It also gives an opportunity for the mentee to ask questions that they would maybe not be comfortable asking in a group setting,” Katharine said.

Talia added that the experience will be personalized to each undergraduate student. For example, the mentor would accommodate mobility issues for the undergraduate student by offering to talk on the phone instead of meeting in person.

“It’s really built to be based on what works best for the particular mentee,” she said.

In addition to building relationships on campus and receiving support, students with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities can learn how to advocate for themselves.

“If you have accommodations, you have to continually have this conversation with professors and TAs,” Talia said. “It’s really exhausting and really mentally taxing.”

Graduate students with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities have faced similar challenges. Through CHAMP, graduate mentors will be able to give undergraduate mentees the tools they need to advocate for themselves when asking for accommodations.

Once the organization is more established, Katharine and Talia plan to give students opportunities to do broader advocacy work and educate faculty on what it’s like to live with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities.

“I’ve had overwhelmingly supportive experiences and that really brings you closer to the professor, but the one or two negative experiences that you have unfortunately override those because they make you feel so bad,” Talia said.

To address those negative experiences, Talia and Katharine hope to advocate for inclusivity in the classroom right from the start, instead of feeling like a burden for asking for accommodations.

“The [Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990]’s only been around for 30 years, which is crazy to think about,” Katharine said. “Which I also think is part of the reason why older faculty have trouble understanding the necessity for these practices to be implemented.”

All elements of CHAMP—making connections, learning how to advocate for yourself, and creating inclusive classroom environments—can help its members live well.

“The main way CHAMP could promote wellbeing is being in an environment where you’re believed and taken seriously, and have someone to talk to that has been through similar situations,” Katharine said.

Talia added that talking to others and listening to her body has helped her live well.

“Even though my body doesn’t cooperate with me all the time like I would hope it would, I’ve learned through physical therapy and through talking that it’s even more important for me to go to the gym and for me to keep active even though it’s harder for me,” Talia said. “It can be really difficult to go to group exercise settings because it’s very easy to compare yourself.”

Talia and Katharine both noted that Group Fitness instructors at Recreation & Wellbeing offered modifications during classes without being asked beforehand, which eases some of the anxiety of not doing certain moves or comparing yourself to others.

“Just being like, ‘Oh, if you have back issues, try this,’ without it being directed at someone,” Talia said. “It’s just out there, and someone who may have those issues knows what to do for their health.”

For Talia and Katharine, all of CHAMP’s goals go back to strength, taking care of yourself, and making connections that will help undergraduate students with chronic pain, illnesses, or disabilities grow and succeed on campus. That’s why CHAMP’s logo is a koala:

“We picked a koala because right now they’re pretty resilient,” Katharine said. “As are people living with conditions like this.”

Talia and Katharine shared that they got several responses from both graduate students and undergraduate students with just one email about the organization.

Students are not required to be formally diagnosed with chronic pain, illness, or disability to join CHAMP.

“We want to start spreading awareness so that people feel less alone in their chronic pain, illness, or disability,” Talia said. “We’re really excited about it!”

To get involved, graduate and undergraduate students can email