When Saima Chauhan takes the stage in February as one of the keynote speakers at the Learning Disabilities Association of America's 50th annual international conference in San Antonio, Texas, she expects to be quite nervous. But Chauhan, a 1999 Ozarks graduate, plans to overcome that stage fright the same way she has overcome other obstacles in her life: with dogged determination and an unwavering will to succeed.
Saima Chauhan, a 1999 Ozarks graduate, will be one of the keynote speakers at the Learning Disabilities Association of America’s 50th annual international conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Chauhan, who credits the Jones Learning Center for helping her succeed in college, has worked for more than 10 years as a licensed social worker as well as a drug and alcohol counselor. She currently serves as the clinical director for Decision Point, a recovery center for alcohol and drug treatment in Northwest Arkansas.
The LDA international conference, set for Feb. 13-16, is one of the largest in the world with approximately 1,500 participants are expected to attend. Chauhan will be the main luncheon speaker on Feb. 14.
"This will probably be the largest group I’ve ever spoken in front of," Chauhan said. "I’m sure I’ll be very nervous, but I tend to do well under pressure."
The title of her talk will be "Finding Hope and Sharing it With Others," and she plans to chronicle her personal experiences of dealing with her learning disability, ADHD.
"My topic is a reflection of my experiences and feelings as a person who has big dreams and high expectations of myself and the challenges of achieving my goals while managing my learning disability," Chauhan said. "I plan to share some of my childhood experiences, the challenges of school, the benefits of understanding why I felt different and how standardized testing shouldn’t define my intelligence."
Chauhan was nominated to be a speaker at the conference by Julia Frost, director of the JLC, and was later chosen by the full conference committee. Frost heard Chauhan talk about overcoming her learning disabilities during a "Professions With a Purpose" panel at U of O’s Alumni Weekend last April and was impressed by her candor and message.
"I was awed by how articulate and honest she was in sharing her challenges and her successes, not only professionally, but also personally," Frost said. "At that time one of her statements was, ‘When I lost hope in college, Debra (Cline) and the others in the JLC held that hope for me.’ That comment touched me deeply, and helped to give all of us from the JLC who were there the boost that we need to continue working with those who are struggling like she was in school. I told Saima then that because she can communicate so well the challenges of living with a learning disability and ADD, she needs to continue speaking because there are so many with similar disabilities who can’t communicate like she can. It is very impressive that now she is ‘holding the hope’ for others."
Chauhan said she is happy to represent Ozarks and the JLC in whatever venue she is needed.
"I don’t like to think where I might be right now if I hadn’t found the JLC," she said. "When I came to college I didn’t feel confident in my academic abilities, but the individuals at the JLC never gave up on me and they helped me believe in myself."
Now Chauhan takes that same loyalty to her work as a drug and alcohol recovery counselor. Her personal experiences have helped shape a career of being an outspoken and avid supporter of people suffering addiction. She grew up with a severely mentally ill parent who was addicted to prescription medications.
"I want to help the suffering addict learn how to live again and be there to carry their hope when they can’t," she said.
It’s that same type of determination and fortitude that helped Saima become a rare four-sport standout at Ozarks in the late 1990s, competing in cross country, basketball, tennis and soccer. She still competes athletically for a female rugby team.
"I remember (Ozarks cross country coach) Sally Wood running behind me at a cross country meet saying ‘I’m going to get you. You better run faster,’" Chauhan said. "I love sports because you are pushed to know your abilities. I enjoy that same type of competitive spirit in rugby, though I’m not as young as I used to be."
In addition to rugby, Chauhan feeds her adrenaline rush as a volunteer firefighter.
"I enjoy community service and look for ways to make a difference," she said. "Becoming a volunteer firefighter allows me to contribute to my community."
After graduating from Ozarks, Chauhan went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of Arkansas before spending a decade as a drug and alcohol counselor and director of residential services at Youth Bridge. She has been with Decision Point for about a year and also serves as vice president for the Arkansas Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors and co-chair of the Ethics Committee for the Arkansas Substance Abuse Certification Board. She is also actively involved on the Governor’s Task Force on Substance Abuse Services.
"Saima is a remarkable woman who I am extremely proud to have representing Ozarks and the JLC at a national conference," Frost said.
Also at the international conference in San Antonio, several other JLC alumni are expected to take part in a panel presentation, including Penn Thomas ’83, James Miller ’82, C.J. Netting ’05, Ryan Evans ’01 and Holly Evans ’98.