In a class of their own

College Success@Perkins sends young adults down a path toward academic growth and self discovery

Sophie walks down a sidewalk using a white cane while her O&M teacher trails behind her.

Sophie works on her orientation and mobility skills, navigating the Perkins campus while a teacher trails behind her.

December 19, 2018

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

“It’s college,” she says. “It gets to be a lot sometimes.”

But Sophie 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 Success@Perkins 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 Sophie’s here, through the busiest of Tuesdays, as well as on those days where she’s got an abundance of unstructured free time. One of ten from all around the country on campus to participate in the first class, she isn’t content to be another statistic. Instead, she’s 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 she’ll need to get there. She’s particularly proud of how her 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,” she says. “I am a lot more confident.”

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

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 Sophie, 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.”

Sophie is certainly resetting her own expectations. But she’s also thinking about her 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,” she says. “I think that’s really important. You can’t do anything if you don’t, at least a tiny bit, know yourself."

What You Can Do

Make your college experience worth the wait! Find out how College Success@Perkins, an innovative, nine-month program for blind and visually impaired high school graduates who are college-bound can prepare you to get the most out of college.