In a class of their own

College [email protected] sends young adults down a path toward academic growth and self discovery.

Steph works on their orientation and mobility skills, navigating the Perkins campus while a teacher trails behind them.

For Steph, Tuesday is the busy day. They’ve got class at 7:30, then again at 9. At 11, they’ll get started on homework, maybe make themself lunch and, hopefully, sneak off to their dorm room for a nap before their next class at 4. By the time dinner rolls around, they’re exhausted, ready to zone out and binge watch “Friends” on Netflix.

“It’s college,” they say. “It gets to be a lot sometimes.”

But Steph isn’t a college student. The 18-year-old from Stillwater, Minnesota, juggles an approximation of college life as a member of the inaugural College [email protected] class. A nine-month residency created by Perkins School for the Blind, the program is designed to ready young adults with visual impairment for the real thing. Specifically, it helps students sharpen their skills relative to independent living, orientation and mobility, academics, technology and more, ultimately empowering them to pursue an education too often out of their reach.

“Students are trying to get their academics in order, but there’s a lot of blindness skills that take a lot of time to learn, too,” says program director Leslie Thatcher. “Fitting all that in during high school is really challenging.”

For instance, many students aren’t currently getting the training they need to utilize online platforms that have become ubiquitous communication tools in college. Further, many don’t know how to advocate for or procure accessible resources they need. As a result of problems like these, combined with universal college hardships like time management, it’s estimated that six of every 10 college students who are blind or visually impaired never graduate.

“They show up behind and haven’t even started class,” adds Thatcher.

That’s why Steph’s here, through the busiest of Tuesdays, as well as on those days where they’ve got an abundance of unstructured free time. One of ten from all around the country on campus to participate in the first class, they aren’t content to be another statistic. Instead, they’re interested in going to college to study either psychology or vocal coaching. And living and learning at Perkins for the last four months has been instrumental in building the skill set they’ll need to get there. They’re particularly proud of how their orientation and mobility skills have “skyrocketed.”

“O&M is a huge deal for me. I didn’t always feel the most supported [in high school], so it’s been a really nice change here, and even a bit of a shock, with the support I’ve been getting,” they say. “I am a lot more confident.”

An avid reader and writer, they’re similarly excited to start their creative fiction class in the spring, marrying their academic interests with classes teaching their foundational skills. But there are areas where they feel perhaps less comfortable, too. They’re still working toward getting certified to use some kitchen equipment without help, a skill that would come in handy not only in school but throughout their life. “It’s a work in progress,” they say.

So it is for everyone. The program itself is designed to meet participants where they are and provide them with an individualized approach to growth, academic and otherwise. For Steph, O&M is a focus. For others, it might be technology, independent living skills, academics or anything else. Even the end goal exists in flux. The hope is simply that all participants go on to graduate college, whether through the traditional route or by taking online courses at their own pace.

“A program like ours gives them the chance to really step into themselves on their own terms,” says Thatcher. “It helps heal past experiences and reset their expectations of themselves and what an academic experience can be.”

Steph is certainly resetting their own expectations. But they’re also thinking about their time here in a way that has nothing to do with academics at all.

“It’s about becoming the best person you can be, discovering who you are outside the four walls of your childhood,” they say. “I think that’s really important. You can’t do anything if you don’t, at least a tiny bit, know yourself.”

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