By Briana Magistro
SC Staff Writer
As the new school year begins, students everywhere are taking on the struggles of finding their classes, meeting their professors, living with a roommate, and figuring out the meal plan system.
This time can be very stressful for any student, especially for freshmen who are experiencing college life for the first time. Now imagine adventuring through all this while blind. That is what some students learned about over the summer at the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Service’s Summer Academy (SA).
As a student who has a visual impairment, I have been involved with the camp for three of the six years it has been running. In 2011, I graduated from the program.
I experienced my first year working as a Resident Assistant in 2013. Resident Assistants are current successful college students dedicated to SA who work 24/7 with the students. We live in the same dorm as them and are involved in every camp activity.
In 2014, I was blessed to see the program grow to new heights. Summer Academy moved from a small campus in Johnstown, PA, to State College.
Moving to Penn State Main Campus was a big change from the tiny, one building facility that hosted our camp in the past. Penn State Main boasts one of the biggest college campuses in the US.
The Summer Academy is a three-week summer program that teaches high school students who are blind or visually impaired how to succeed in college.
The students participate in classes and activities geared toward giving them the skills they need to perform well in college, despite their disabilities.
One of the more formal classes is Assistive Technology, where students learn how to use assistive devices, such as digital magnifiers and assistive computer programs like JAWS and Zoom Text.
This year, each student received an iPad loaded with assistive apps, like Tap Tap See, which allows its user to identify money, retail items, and even room descriptions.
At the Summer Academy, we teach the students to be independent self-advocates. We have interactive lessons with the students where the RA’s perform skits of real-life college problems, including dealing with a bad roommate or advocating for yourself when it comes to asking your professor for special accommodations.
One student, André, a freshman studying IT at Luzerne County Community College, said, “The RAs were college students themselves, and I learned a lot about what to do and what to expect when I got to college.”
One of the most important lessons for a student with a visual disability is learning how to use a mobility cane to travel independently. Each student, as well as every visually impaired RA, used a red and white cane to navigate throughout the duration of the program. Some students had never used a cane and were adverse at first.
We had bus travel, street crossing, and night lessons with our canes. By the end, the students really learned to love their canes. One student, Lauren, a freshman at the Community College of Allegheny County interested in computer science, said, “I learned to use my cane everywhere and I have more confidence with going into new places by myself.”
Devin, a student who is planning to study psychology at Penn State Dubois before transferring to Main Campus, said, “I’m a cane user now. I always use my cane when I go places and walk to places by myself.”
Along with the lessons geared toward low vision and blindness, the students were able to sit in on real college lectures.
“I really liked Human Development and Family Studies,” said Devin, referring to one of the live classes we attended.
The students participated in many recreational activities, including lawn games and a high ropes course. André said that one of his favorite activities was “the day we played volleyball for five straight hours.”
We also learned how to play blind-friendly games, which use sound rather than sight to identify balls. “I’m glad I learned to play ‘goal ball’ and ‘beep kickball,’” said Devin, who was curious about starting an intramural goal ball team one day.
The students really learn a lot through their experience at the Summer Academy, and the staff does too.
Alexa Pogrob, a senior at Penn State majoring in rehabilitation and human services, had a positive first experience.
Pogrob said, “After the three weeks, I left SA being a full-blown advocate for people with visual impairments and people with disabilities in general. Without even meaning to, I’ll be in a building or somewhere on campus and think how inaccessible it is for people with disabilities. It exposed me to such a warm, welcoming community that fascinated me.”
The Summer Academy has even pushed her to continue her career in human services. “I am currently applying to rehab counseling grad programs,” said Pogrob.
I was really surprised how many new things I learned this summer at SA. I recently lost more of my vision and was having a hard time coping with this and finding new ways to be successful through my last year of college. This program refreshed my confidence in using a cane and to self-advocate. I also learned about new technology, especially apps, that have enriched my college experience.
As a biochemistry major, my career path does not traditionally have anything to do with disability services. However, my years of experience with this phenomenal program have opened my eyes to my passion for people. I am always learning new things about my disability, others, and myself. I am hoping that I will find some way to incorporate this into my career.
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