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.
“There’s not enough time in four years of high school to teach all of the skills necessary to adapt [to an independent higher education experience], and that independence when you’re in college is essential,” explained College Success Director Leslie Thatcher, A.M. ’95. “Introducing these future young professionals to tools that they will use for the rest of their lives, and then empowering them with the confidence and the ability to articulate what their needs and desires are, like every other human being, is the essence of what these nine months is about.”
Another of the impressive eight to complete College Success’ inaugural year is Asheville, N.C., native Jordan Scheffer, an aspiring musician who once took second place at Amateur Night at the Apollo, and who came to Perkins specifically to acquire independent living skills.
“I think when I came in August, I wanted to travel on my own, but wondered, ‘Oh, how do I do this?’” she said. “And I was very nervous. But throughout these nine months I’ve become so much more independent, and I’ve also become more able to express what I need and why I need it, which I’m still working on.” On a recent trip to a nearby mall, an emboldened Scheffer left the group she was traveling with to do some exploring, and shopping, on her own.
Thatcher said both Scheffer and Brown had strong academic backgrounds before arriving at Perkins, yet they both benefited significantly from their first taste of college-level coursework, which they completed at the Extension School. During their first semester, students in College Success enrolled in EXPO-E25, “Academic Writing and Critical Reading,” and they were also able to sign up for electives of their own choosing, both in person and online. Brown took an introduction to fiction writing course that culminated in writing a piece “looking at myself some years into the future,” as well as another class on self and identity; Scheffer signed up for the writing class, as well as a course on grammar. She also took intro to psychology, which she attended at Harvard’s Science Center using Uber to get back and forth from Perkins’ Watertown campus.
Scheffer, who will attend UNC Asheville in the fall, said her favorite project from her Extension School classes required her to analyze people “in public doing something, and to make inferences on why they were doing what they were doing.” To do this, she went to a coffee shop with a sighted friend, and used an app called Be My Eyes to observe fellow patrons by connecting with sighted volunteers.
“I love quote-unquote people-watching,” she explained. “I write creatively, with characters, and it’s fun for me to get to analyze behavior and infer why it’s going on. This, I think, gives me a lot of basis for putting behavior into stories, but also for learning about human beings and why they do what they do in what circumstances. I think that’s really interesting.”