The following reflections from national scholarship winners are reprinted from the pages of the NFBNJ semi-annual publication, The Sounding Board. Enjoy reading their experience attending national convention as a scholarship winner.
NFBNJ president Joe Ruffalo congratulates national scholarship winner Alyssa Shock, a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
As a psychology major, I’ve been asked: Isn’t psychology just common sense? The fact is, no, psychology is not just common sense. One thing a psychology major quickly learns is that he or she will be looking at a lot of scientific research in the course of their education. Psychology majors also learn basic skills to design and answer research questions. I applied for the NFB scholarship because I had a sort of “research question” of my own: Can someone with my qualifications and experience win a scholarship and a great opportunity to attend a convention from the biggest scholarship program in the United States? I proceeded to submit my application.
I was out to dinner on a Sunday when I got a call from an unknown number. I usually don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers because of all the sales and scam calls promising things such as discounts on my electric bill. If it was important, I thought, the caller would leave a voicemail, and this caller did. Because I volunteer for a sexual violence resource center, I was worried that an emergency had come up, and someone from there was trying to contact me, so, in the middle of dinner, I proceeded to listen to my message. When I discovered the call was from a member of the NFB scholarship committee, I couldn’t help but call back immediately.
I spent the rest of that meal celebrating the fact that I had won an NFB scholarship … and wondering how in the world I would manage to make it through the convention by myself. I had been to convention once before with my mother and an aunt, but I knew this time I would be on my own. The thought of that was a bit scary.
Before I knew it, I was inside the hotel on the first day of convention. Being that I am easily overstimulated, I did find it overwhelming. One of the first things I learned was that to keep calm, I was going to have to break everything down into small steps, and focus on the action I was taking at the moment. For example, if I wanted to get to a meeting from my room, first I would have to get to the first floor, then find my way around the rotunda, and so on. I would need to focus on each step, and try to keep everything else out of my mind.
Once I figured out how to cope with the environment, I was able to gain a lot of information from the meetings. I learned about forms of discrimination and access barriers that blind people have faced, and how the NFB helps overcome these issues. For example, I learned that the NFB has fought for blind people who have faced low expectations from teachers and lacked necessary accommodations to gain the same knowledge as their sighted counterparts.
To be honest, I have personally faced little discrimination and few access barriers thus far in my life. I was shocked to hear about the terrible ways in which blind people have been slighted, and times when they had been cheated out of opportunities and experiences. I believe that continuing the fight to overcome discrimination and access barriers is extremely important. With all of this in mind, I want to take a moment to thank those who have been extremely accommodating and given me wonderful experiences throughout my life, including, especially, my family, the Dumont (NJ) School District, Fairleigh Dickinson University and the YWCA of Bergen County.
At convention, I also learned about technologies intended to help overcome access barriers, such as the awesome development of a braille display that makes images tactile. I also learned about Aira, a new technology that helps blind people have easier access to information. I would be lying if I said that I have come home from convention without the desire to invest in some new technologies for myself.
Probably the most important thing I learned is that blind people all over the world and the nation are overcoming barriers and getting the degrees, finding the jobs and having the experiences they want. In other words, they are living the lives they want. My mentors during convention were people I will never forget. They affirmed my belief that I can obtain my career goal of becoming a mental health counselor. Bigger than that, they affirmed that I can do anything I put my mind to and truly want, even if doing so does require me to overcome discrimination and access barriers. Speaking of that, I learned that the NFB will do everything they can to help blind people with these kinds of struggles.
Of course, I did not spend all of my time in convention activities. I used my spare time meeting new friends and visiting with old ones. When things became too overwhelming, my friends helped me relax and find some peace. Learning did not stop when I was outside of convention events. I learned and shared perspectives even in my spare time. All of this learning was fun and certainly did not feel like “work.”
With all of this in mind, I would definitely recommend that everyone who is blind or visually impaired try to go to an NFB convention. There is so much to experience and so many great people to meet. However, I do have one word of caution regarding convention: Sleep may be hard to come by. There is so much to do that getting the normal six to eight hours of sleep per night may not be possible.
Looking back from home, I cannot believe that one small “research question” could lead to such awesome results. A final thanks is due to the NFB scholarship committee for facilitating the awesome experience I had at convention.
DEANNA GRECO just started her freshman year at The Catholic University of America. She is a biology premedical student. Here is her story:
Imagine a place where there are 2,500 people using white canes and guide dogs, a place where the sighted person in the room is in the minority. A place where you feel accepted, loved and supported. I found this place at the National Federation of the Blind’s National Convention. I was fortunate enough to be one of the NFB’s 2016 Scholarship Winners.
My past year has been similar to that of other students who are in the process of transitioning from high school to college. By January 2016, I was exhausted from writing countless college application essays, going to college interviews and working on maintaining my grade point average (4.5 GPA). Just like everyone else, I realized that college would be expensive, and therefore, I decided to apply for scholarships. While looking online, I came across the NFB’s scholarship program. From the time I was diagnosed with cone rod dystrophy at age 8, my mother always encouraged me to join the NFB. We attended a few meetings with the New Jersey chapter, but I never had the desire to be an active member. I didn’t think that I needed the NFB. I honestly did not consider myself a part of the blind community. However, I decided that since I liked a challenge, I would apply for the NFB scholarship.
In early May, I received a call from one of the scholarship committee members informing me that I was a scholarship finalist. During this conversation, I learned that I would be required to go to the NFB National Convention, and this filled me with both excitement and nervousness.
I wasn’t anxious about meeting new people; I enjoy that. However, I never traveled out of state. The idea of getting on a plane and finding transportation to the hotel intimidated me. However, there are some things in life you have to do, and I knew that independent travel was one of those things. When I stepped into the hotel lobby, I became filled with a sense of accomplishment and relief. As I stood there, taking it all in, I heard the tap tap tap of hundreds of white canes. At first, this was extremely overwhelming. Yet, when I returned home a week later, it was strange not hearing all those canes. Looking back, I know that winning the scholarship was a blessing in disguise because it led me to this outstanding group of people.
Convention was a blast! From the moment I entered the hotel, to the second I left, I was participating in exhilarating activities. Regardless of whether I was at General Session or out to lunch with one of my mentors, I was having a delightful time. I knew that successful blind people existed, but I never witnessed such a large gathering of blind people in my life. The members of the NFB are determined, intelligent and, most importantly, compassionate. Before convention, I was unaware of the inequality that the blind community faces in all aspects of life. The fact that people are getting paid less simply because they are blind, or having their children taken away because close-minded individuals say, “How could blind people raise children?” is absurd. These issues need to be eradicated, and there is no doubt in my mind that the NFB will do exactly that.
This fall, I will be starting at The Catholic University of America as a biology premedical student. Having low vision, I know that I will encounter hurdles caused by my lack of vision in laboratory settings. Prior to convention, I did not know any blind people employed in the science fields that I could turn to when I face sight-related difficulties. This changed when I attended the Science and Engineering Division meeting at the National Convention. At this gathering, I met several blind people involved in fields such as chemistry and biology. I gained priceless knowledge about the accommodations that could help me achieve success at Catholic University. I also formed friendships that will last a lifetime. I do not use the word friendship lightly. There is a reason I did not use the word “networking.” The reason is that the people I met at convention are not business contacts, but rather they are family members that I know will always have my back.
Before I knew it, it was the last night of convention. I was sitting at the banquet surrounded by my new family. Between listening to President Riccobono’s compelling speech and laughing with the members of the New Jersey affiliate at my table, the four-hour banquet flew by. As the night came to a close, it was time for the scholarship ceremony. All of the scholarship winners received a beautiful print/braille plaque, a certificate for a KNFB Reader App, and a $1,000 grant from Dr. Kurzweil. We also received a ChromeBook and $1,000 from Google, and a certificate for an accessible science tool known as Talking Lab Quest from Independence Science. In addition to the generous awards listed above, each winner received varying scholarship awards. I received a $3,000 scholarship. I sincerely appreciate every award that I received that night. Yet, I would not be doing any justice to myself or the NFB if I did not share which award is closest to my heart. The special award that I cherish is my Federation family. So regardless of whether you are a blind individual looking for blind friends or a sighted parent searching for information on how to get the necessary accommodations for your blind child, join the NFB. I assure you that the National Federation of the Blind will embrace you with open arms, you will not be disappointed, nor will you ever feel alone.
LAURA ETORI is attending Rutgers University and pursuing degrees in both actuarial science and finance. Here is her story:
I love swimming, cooking and baking. I love my family; they are my biggest fans. I love being happy and most of all, I love the Lord and I am grateful to Him for everything in my life.
I am a Kenyan currently living and studying in New Jersey. I lost my sight four years ago due to a secondary effect of idiopathic intracranial hypertension.
I came to New Jersey for school. On the day of my arrival, someone stepped on my white cane and broke it. Soon after, at my aunt’s house, my cousin and I immediately investigated where to get a white cane. The first thing that popped up was “get a free white cane from the NFB.” Well, who doesn’t like free things, so I ordered one. My cane arrived soon, and I was back in business. A week later I received voicemail from NFBNJ Northeast Chapter member Alwin Glasgow asking how I liked the cane. In a later call, he told me all about NFB. Having read about NFB years ago, I always wondered if such an organization could be real. Alwin told me that, if needed, he would help me the best he could. We continued to correspond, and this past March I attended my first Northeast Chapter meeting. Then I applied for the scholarship, beating the deadline by a few days, and soon found myself in Florida for the convention.
From the age of 12, I have always wanted to become an actuary, leading people to ask whether I loved math. Well, it’s not about loving math; it’s about having passion for what I love and for what I want to become. And, yes I love math. It’s all about commitment and having a vision.
Then I had a familiar feeling, like the one I had when I lost my sight, the same feeling I had when I left Kenya, and the same feeling I got when I realized I was a national scholarship finalist: Uncertainty, along with determination that there is something I am meant to do. On July 6, the convention was over, and all I could remember was the last night’s ringing speech by President Riccobono about fear. The voice in my head told me, “Fear will hold you back.” So I thought of the many things I had feared and how much I feared uncertainty, which was ironic since my life was filled with uncertainties. Four years ago I had not planned to be in Florida at that day and time; I certainly had never thought I would ever be blind. But now that life had developed that way, it surely was the best thing to ever happen to me.
Walking into the convention resort proved a big eye-opener. Where in the world would I ever have had the chance to be welcomed by the noise of a swarm of bees. Oh boy! Was I in for a surprise. It wasn’t actually bees, but rather the noise of thousands of white canes rolling or tapping the tiled floor of the hotel. I felt a bit flustered. This was my first time I had been around so many blind and visually impaired people, and I had mixed feelings.
As for orientation to the hotel, let’s just say that experience is the best teacher. I read and re-read the text description of the hotel and nothing stuck in my mind. I eventually learned my way around. I met so many people from different walks of life and with different stories. The other scholarship finalists were so impressive. They were happy and classy people. They had done and were doing really amazing things. I was most grateful for my mentors. From Sharon Maneki I learned that one must have a plan of action: “You cannot just be flowing with what everyone is doing; have your own goals and have a plan of action.” Ever Lee Hairston taught me how to be a believer: “If you decide to do or get something, believe in yourself and go for it.” John Halverson counseled that with time we accrue experience and get good at what we do; we only have to persist and be consistent. Cassie McKinney taught me the virtue of humility. At the Imagination Fund table, I watched her listen to and assist every single person who came to her, even if they just wanted to talk. She was happy and graceful throughout. Cindy Bennett taught me to always be at the top of my game: “Be your best and be the best. Know what you need to know and know even a little bit more and never fear to look good and fabulous; just be humble about it and keep it real.” Finally, Brian Miller taught me it’s never bad to know something extra. It’s good to be a diversified person and to improve yourself with different kinds of knowledge and to stay happy.
I thought about all these things and pondered how to use these insights to encourage change in people’s lives. Honestly, I felt a bit panicky, but I remembered that fear will stop me. I decided to rethink the concept of bravery. I realized it meant accepting people’s differences and individual challenges. Historically, I had felt like I did not want to experience anything different and that I had experienced enough. Now I realized I needed to grow in order to effect change and to have an impact on people’s lives. I do not know how I will help others; I guess that is one of my many challenges to figure out as I determine what I am really good at and how best to help others develop their own positive changes.
Now, each time I meet someone and am asked, “How did you find convention?” I talk about the importance of continuing to learn, because I believe that was the whole point of my attending the NFB 2016 convention. I hope we can all embrace change and let ourselves feel the shifting and evolving of our mindsets and lives.