Seeing the Light of Independence

Harvard Gazette

College Success graduate Jordan Scheffer touches a statue of John Harvard on Harvard's campus

On Harvard's campus, College Success graduate Jordan Scheffer reaches for the statue of John Harvard.

June 13, 2019

Upon arriving at Perkins School for the Blind’s College Success program last fall, Steph Brown had never, in 18 years growing up in Stillwater, Minn., crossed a street alone.

“I have no vision whatsoever,” Brown said, and this presented fundamental challenges in school — like getting to the building in the first place and then from class to class, and learning Braille to be able to read along and finish assignments. Often, Brown relied on family and friends to help negotiate some of the everyday tasks that sighted people can take for granted.

As Brown reached high school, it came time to think about college, including the notion of pursuing an education outside of Minnesota. But the prospect of going anywhere alone was already daunting enough. Hurdle after hurdle popped up in Brown’s mind before even beginning to think about what college might be a good fit.

“You know that meme ‘This Is Fine,’ where the dog’s sitting in a room drinking a cup of coffee, smiling, but the surrounding room is on fire?” Brown asks. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that, you know, that ‘I am fine,’ but felt that way.”

Brown is not alone in feeling like the world is burning, especially when it comes to visually impaired students who are thinking about entering America’s higher education system. According to Perkins, about 60 percent of blind or visually impaired students who pursue postsecondary education programs fail to graduate. The vast leap needed to acquire both academic achievement and independent living skills, which include day-to-day getting around, housework, and time management, is often too great for these young adults to successfully complete.

Perkins is trying to shorten this leap and build bridges to opportunity through College Success, which, in May, graduated its first cohort of eight students from seven states nationwide. In collaboration with the Harvard Extension School, the program prepares students to live on their own for the first time, helping them find the right school and giving them the academic skills they’ll need to stay there.

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