After spending the last 36 years helping students with learning disabilities, Mary Saltus is retiring. The South Hadley resident has served as the administrator of American International College's Supportive Learning Services (SLS) program since its inception in 1977, only the second program of its kind at that time.

The SLS program part of the Curtis Blake Center at AIC, began with just four students. Saltus was finishing her graduate work, when Dr. Paul Quinlan director of the Blake Center, said to her, "We're going to take four students next year who have learning disabilities and we are going to fully integrate them into the college and I would like you to work with them."

Mary Saltus (center) with AIC students Jared Hulsey and Christina Nardi (back) and SLS staff members Anne Midura and Michele Moriarty-Ryan.

Saltus first thought was, "Wow. There was only one college program in the country that had support for LD students. I knew exactly what I would do. I would take what the high schools were doing I would apply it to college." said Saltus.

Lorri Comeau, current executive director of the Curtis Blake Center, said Saltus has had an incredible career pioneering support for college students with learning disabilities "Mary's extraordinary work has changed the lives of thousands of students over the years."

Saltus said a lot has changed since 1977, now students with learning disabilities receive so much more. "They are able to address many of their issues in reading and writing through the use of technology. They have the use of software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, where they can dictate their essays and have them changed into print without worrying about the spelling component. They also use Inspiration software which organizes ideas into outlines and from there into papers," Saltus said.

Students receive their books from Learning Ally, formally Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). "We started using these services in the 1980s. At that time, students were given tapes and huge tape recorders to carry around in order to hear their texts; later they were given CDs and now they can download audio book - wonderful," Saltus said.

The SLS program definitely works, as students in Supportive Learning Services have higher graduation rates as compared with the college in general. "And I will tell you why I think that is," Saltus said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful for every student in college to have a mentor who cared about them; to help them through especially those early semesters; not letting them fall through the cracks; and knowing that they have someone to depend on for academic support? I think that's why the support program works."

Many of the students in the program have been class presidents and many are top athletes. "We encourage our students to be all that they can be. If you take a person's learning difference and set it aside, what you would have is a unique person with his or her own set of skills, capabilities, intelligence, and personality. Students can be anything they want to be, but they do need to navigate around the challenges, learn what their strengths are and use them to actualize their potential."

As for the future, Saltus said she plans on continuing her Tai Chi practice and volunteering with an organization that helps sick children have an opportunity to make their wishes come true. "Teaching is a career that I have loved and now I would like to continue my commitment to the well-being of children in a different capacity," she said.