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Overcoming Obstacles

How one Viking found success through determination and advocacy

Gaetano “Tom” Mortillaro, a 2017 Salem State graduate and self-identified student with disabilities, worked closely with the office of disability services to find appropriate housing and classroom accommodations during his time on campus. 

This fall, over 700 new Salem State students have self-identified with at least one disability according to Lisa Bibeau, assistant dean for disability services at Salem State. Her small but mighty office and staff assist any student that comes through the door with the tools they need to succeed and graduate.  The office works with faculty, staff and students to ensure that appropriate academic accommodations are made which allow all students equal opportunity in the classroom and throughout campus. 

 “Gaetano came through our office. His dad and he were some of the best advocates we ever had! We had an amazing relationship,” expounds Bibeau.

Tom and his father worked tirelessly to see him succeed through high school despite many surgeries. A hard-working family from the North Shore, together they found ways to make the best of Tom’s abilities and fine-tune the best path for him to graduate from a four-year university and find gainful and rewarding employment. 

As with most individuals with disabilities, the challenges doubled as he navigated studies, money and physical obstacles and biases. Often Tom was late for class because the larger campus shuttle bus did not see him. With a phone call to disability services, the smaller campus-run shuttle was deployed to ensure Tom got to class on time. In the warmer months, Tom and his father purchased an adaptive bike and then modified it so he could get around campus faster. 

Tom’s pathway to graduation wouldn’t have been possible without financial aid. A random Google search on “scholarships for students with disabilities” parlayed into enough money to enroll and find housing the first year at SSU. As a freshman in 2013, Tom sought out the office of disabilities to find accommodations but also worked with the Student Navigation Center to apply for any available scholarships that would assist him throughout his academic career. He was awarded the Walsh Family Award for the next three years, which supports dynamic and diverse individuals who are driven to improve the world around them in unique ways. 

Without this funding, Tom would not have been able to persist to graduation. “The Walsh family’s scholarship gave me the ability to overcome the financial result of my condition and pursue higher education and a career path I desired. Words cannot describe how much the scholarship has meant to me and my future.”

For most students, work-study, student employment and outside jobs help support their educational costs like tuition, housing, food, and books. For Tom, the scholarship support was even more meaningful since physical challenges prevented him from finding employment. 

Once graduating from Salem State, Tom enrolled in Boston University School of Law and was able to continue supporting his education through their scholarship network, graduating in May 2021 with a JD (Juris Doctor) and an LLM (Master of Laws) in tax law. He recently took the Massachusetts bar exam and is currently waiting for results.   

Alumni Relations
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