All in: Berkeley Haas MBA club expands support for students with disabilities

Living with Lyme disease made Barbara Rion, MBA 25, aware of the toll that a chronic health condition can take. A military analyst with the CIA before she came to Berkeley Haas, Rion spent a lot of time after she contracted the infection figuring out how to relieve her symptoms through diet and lifestyle changes and physical therapy.

headshot of a woman with long hair smiling
Barbara Rion, MBA 25

Although Rion is well today, that intense journey is partly what drove her to help restart HaasAbilities, a student club for MBA students with disabilities, and their allies. 

But in reviving HaasAbilities, she and co-chair Cynthia Brzezinski, MBA 25, wanted to expand the definition of disability beyond those that are typically discussed to include less visible, but equally impactful, conditions such as infectious disease, dietary allergies, or ADHD.  

“I wanted the club to be a place for everyone and to offer resources for everyone,” Rion said. “Haas has a lot of the right resources. The challenge is getting students informed about what’s available.”

The pair developed three goals when they took over last spring: to foster a community for students with disabilities, to invite allies in to promote understanding of disabilities, and to advocate for new MBA students with disabilities. The club now has 55 members and a nine-person board, comprising students with disabilities and allies. 

UC Berkeley was one of the first college campuses in the United States to begin accommodating students with disabilities, a response to student activism in the 1960s. Despite Berkeley’s role as a leader in the disability rights movement, both Rion and Brzezinski say entering MBA students often don’t know where to go when they need help. That’s why one of the club’s priorities is to raise awareness about the UC Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program (DSP), which includes information about campus resources and support services. 

woman standing outdoors wearing a jacket
Cynthia Brzezinski, MBA 25

Brzezinski’s former roommate, for example, suffered a concussion after a car crash at the beginning of the school year and struggled to navigate classes after the accident. Recognizing the need to get centralized information out about available support, a HaasAbilties board member put together a list of resources for the Haas community. Rion also pointed to the number of students battling COVID-19 or the flu who wanted accommodations for taking their exams but were unaware of the campus’s program. “We talked to the program office about this and they started putting the DSP link into communications so that people can access it a lot easier,” she said. 

Lupe Alonzo-Diaz, EWMBA 26, BA 97 (political economy), said that serving as a vice president on the HaasAbilities board “is near and dear to my heart,” providing support to her as both an ally to her 9-year-old son, who is autistic, and an MBA student navigating her own disability.  

Alonzo-Diaz, who suffered a concussion several years ago, said she now processes information differently than before the accident, making studying and time management much more challenging than when she earned a separate master’s degree in her 20s. But as president and CEO of Physicians for a Healthy California, she said she’s encouraged by how open the younger generation is about discussing challenges with neurodivergence.

“I applaud their bravery in disclosing,” Alonzo-Diaz said. “I applaud that folks who are neurodivergent are embracing their identity and that they are actively looking to be part of organizations that embrace this and all parts of themselves.”

woman wearing a green jacket
Lupe Alonzo-Diaz

Brzezinski said her interest in allyship is rooted in watching her mother struggle with psoriatic arthritis, a chronic inflammatory condition that causes pain in joints, tendons, and ligaments. 

While at Haas, she is working at two healthcare startups and is particularly interested in caring for seniors, an often socially invisible population, with many suffering from chronic conditions. “This was an opportunity to improve my immediate environment with my friend, Barbara,” she said. 

Last spring, the club hosted a story share, which left some students in tears. “That was honestly the best and most impactful event that I went to at Haas last year,” Brzezinski said. 

Gearing up for the new school year, the club is planning to host a second story share, along with workshops that teach students how to advocate in the workplace and how to be supportive managers for people with disabilities. 

“Managers shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Rion said. “That’s why we are trying to get the future leaders at Haas educated on that before they leave.”