Last Saturday at my college, there was a preview day for incoming freshmen to register for their classes if they hadn’t already, tour the campus and seek advice for how to be successful in college from older students. My work at the switchboard where I have fielded a lot of calls with questions from incoming freshmen and their parents and observed my coworkers at the information desk as they make all of the logistical arrangements for preview day has brought back so many memories of two years ago when I was one of those nervous freshmen preparing to enter the scary unknown world of college that I thought it would be fun to write an entry reflecting on these memories.
Ever since I can remember, my parents and teachers encouraged me to dream big because blindness was my only disability, and despite the fact that the unemployment rate is 70 percent for blind people which would mean I would have to work a little harder to get employers to accept me, they were confident that I was capable of being an educated, employed and productive member of society, and that the world was full of opportunities for me. Even for sighted people, college is essential for making big dreams come true, especially with so much competition for jobs here in the United States, and from places like India and China that have industrialized rapidly in recent years. But I think my teachers and parents knew that if it was difficult for even sighted people to find employment, it would be even more difficult for me, making a college education even more essential for me.
At first, the goal of preparing me for college was the goal of my teachers. When the amount of homework and serious academic learning increased in third grade, an increase I wasn’t prepared for, I earned a C on the first Social Studies test where we learned things like the names and locations of the seven continents and four oceans. Now to me, a C didn’t seem that bad. An F, I had learned was bad because it meant a failing grade, but a C I thought was average. What was wrong with average? Of course back then, the importance of maintaining good grades wasn’t much of a concern to me because it was only third grade. My brother had to earn certain grades in order to pass his final exams in high school, and I had heard that in college, the test basically determined your grade since you didn’t have the daily assignments to balance it out. But high school and college seemed a long way off back then and therefore nothing I needed to worry about or start preparing for. However when my vision teacher saw this grade, I will never forget the lecture I got about how important it is to study harder because tests and subjects will only get harder in the years to come. If that meant staying up late, or leaving a fun family event to lock myself upstairs at my desk and study, then that was what I had to do. When I actually did get to high school, by which time I had matured and was doing my homework consistently and earning excellent grades, the subject of this third grade lecture came up somehow in one of my orientation and mobility lessons with her, and I asked her why she had given me such a lecture when it was only third grade. It was kind of funny because she did actually admit she might have been a little harsh with me considering my age, but said with seriousness in her voice that it was because she had such high hopes for me to go on to college. So many of the students she worked with would never go to college since they also had cognitive disabilities, but I could go to college, have a successful career and be a self sufficient blind woman. But she was concerned that the poor work ethic and study habits I had in third grade would only get worse in the coming years and that I would not be able to handle college. More lectures like these were delivered in subsequent years, but like I said, I gradually started maturing and doing better until by high school, I was making excellent grades and there was no doubt that I would be able to handle college. There was still a trace of my immaturity in eighth grade and the early part of ninth grade, not so much in my grades but in my attitude which required some motivation from my parents. I was doing well in eighth grade but was getting tired of the grind of school year after year, and all of the pressure to perform well on tests and assignments that came with it. The prospect of four more years of this drudgery was depressing, and eight more years was unthinkable. Why did I have to go to college? I was willing to put up with high school because I had to by law for one thing, but also because while it would mean four more years of math concepts I would never use in life, I might also learn some valuable things to make me a more well-rounded mature person. But one of my favorite country singers Loretta Lynn only got an eighth grade education, but still became famous with her wonderful singing, and she is probably doing just fine financially too. But my parents said that this kind of success is the exception, not the rule, but also repeatedly reassured me that college would not be like middle school and high school because I would be in the adult world surrounded by a more mature group of peers and taking more classes related to my interests rather than just general education classes that everyone has to take. By tenth grade when I was finally developing the maturity to realize how competitive the global job market is, I succumbed to the reality that realistically, I would need to go to college. It wasn’t until eleventh grade when the mentorship opportunity I had at a local newspaper helped me to discover a passion for Journalism that I actually got excited for college. But no sooner had the question of whether or not I was going to college been resolved than another more imminent and anxiety provoking question present itself. That question was where I would go to college.
Deep down, the prospect of going far away to college and living in a dorm scared me to death, which made me no different than any teenager in a way because like any teenager, I had been living at home with my parents all of my life and couldn’t imagine living far away from this comfort and sense of familiarity. But I think I was even more scared about being on my own than the average teenager since being blind meant I would need more accommodations to get through college, and since I would no longer have my vision teacher or aid to turn to, or my parents just steps away if I needed help with homework or comfort when school was stressful, the thought of having to advocate for my own needs and comfort myself in a lonely impersonal dorm room overwhelmed me. At the same time, I wanted to get the full college experience of being on my own since I knew I couldn’t live with my parents forever, and feared employers would think less of me or that I would still feel like I was in high school if I went to a little community college and came home to my parents every day when all of my high school peers with an equal academic standing to mine were talking about going to big name schools and living on their own. In fact, for awhile, I dreamed of going to Saint Olaf’s since a choir from this college came to sing with my school choir at the beginning of my sophomore year, and they were amazing! In addition, going to that school would be the ultimate college experience and chance to display independence since it was about a five hour drive from home. My parents were pretty opposed to me going that far away for the same reasons that I was apprehensive about going that far away deep down, but I found myself being kind of upset with them and feeling like they were holding me back by encouraging me to look at colleges in the area where I feared I wouldn’t get the full college experience. Fortunately however, there was one piece of advice I did agree with my mom about, which was to decide what you are interested in studying and then determine where would be the best fit for your interests rather than focusing on where to go first. Following this advice turned out to benefit all parties involved because after doing some more thorough college research for a career preparation assignment that the guidance counselors led all of the juniors through in the library, I discovered that Saint Olaf’s did not have a Journalism program which was what I really wanted to study. I still think it would have been pretty cool to sing with a Saint Olaf’s choir, especially when I hear their Christmas concert on public television every year. But the choirs at the college I ended up choosing are excellent too even if they are not prestigious enough to have a concert on public television, and it was definitely more important to find a college that offered the Journalism program I was interested in than a college with a prestigious choir that I would sing in as an extracurricular activity. It turned out there were a lot of great colleges in the area that offered Journalism, so many that I was overwhelmed. There was only one way to find out whether colleges I read about on the internet were right for me, and that was to arrange college visits.
The first college my parents, vision teacher and I visited was a state university about 45 minutes from my house, the same college both my older brothers went to, and my oldest brother majored in Journalism there. Toward the end of my sophomore year, my vision teacher heard about a special visiting day the college had arranged for prospective students, and since she heard this college had a good disability services department, she thought it was worth pulling me out of school for. I wasn’t entirely thrilled about going to the same college both my brothers went to because I wanted to have my own college experience and not just default and go to the same college my brothers went to. Of course, if I had fallen in love with this college and felt like it was the perfect fit for me, I hope I would have had the maturity to choose my college for the right reasons and go to the college that felt right for me even if it was the same college my brothers went to. But it didn’t take long to realize this wasn’t the right college for me. The day began in a huge lecture hall where there must have been hundreds of other students and their parents, where we listened to boring lectures about all the programs this college offered. From there, we could break off and go to separate buildings for more information about a specific program that interested us. Back then, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in Journalism yet, so my vision teacher took me to the music school to learn more about their music program. Maybe I might have had a more positive attitude about this college if I had come back once I had decided I was interested in Journalism to learn more about that program, but I doubt it because instead of using the presentation time to make the group feel welcome and share some general information about the program, it seemed like the presenter of the music program just launched right in to rambling about all of the portfolio, audition and application requirements to be considered for admission in to the music school, and there was too many people and too little time to introduce myself to the presenter and discuss the accommodations I would need to be in this program as a blind person, so that when I left, I felt overwhelmed, not excited at all. I am sure this presentation would have basically been the same for the Journalism program, especially since Journalism is a very competitive field. After lunch while other students were taking a group tour of the campus, we did get to have an individual meeting with the disability services coordinator, and another blind student already attending that college. These people were wonderful and got my parents excited about all of the services that would be available to me. There was even a braille embosser for tests or math materials that I might need to have a hard copy of. In fact, my parents were so excited about all of these services that by the end of the meeting, they were saying things like “We look forward to meeting you again in a couple years!” that made it seem like it had been decided this was the school for me and it was all over but the formality of filling out the application. There would be no need for any more college visits, which I remembered being an exciting process for my older sister. The fact that blindness was my only disability meant that I could go to college, but I hadn’t anticipated blindness to be a disability that would limit where I could go to college. My parents apologized for coming off in a way that made it seem like the decision about where I went to college was being made for me, and my mom explained the reason they were really so excited was that they had no idea how many services were available for blind students and thought that once I got to college, I would be on my own. No matter where I went to college, I would of course be on my own in the sense that I would have to plan ahead and make it my responsibility to inform disability services about upcoming tests or textbooks I needed, but I think what my parents feared was meant by being on my own was that there was no disability services department at all. But when they learned that all colleges offered disability services, the college visits continued. Just after the fourth of July the summer after my junior year, my parents and I visited Northwestern University in Illinois, about three hours from our house. My parents were not wild about me going to this college either, but I think if it was where I really wanted to go, they would have obliged and let me go there because we have relatives near there if I was having problems, and my dad who was helping me with my college research read that they have an excellent Journalism program. But once again, it was crystal clear this was not the right college for me. In fact, when we were sent on a walking tour of their sprawling campus with fifty other students and their parents where the tour guide walked so fast that I couldn’t keep up since it was a hot day and there were a lot of steps to navigate, which meant I always ended up at the very back of the group where I couldn’t really hear what the tour guide was saying, I decided that my experience at Northwestern was even worse than my experience at the first college. This unwelcome feeling was even further confirmed when we met with the disability services coordinator who said they have services like Jaws that can be installed on computers for me, but they have never had any other blind students, so that by the end of this visit, I had a headache, and a nagging feeling that all my parents and teachers had overestimated my capabilities and I would never find a college that didn’t overwhelm me.
And then came July 27, 2007, and my visit to Carroll College. I think I had gotten some recruitment letters from this college, but disregarded them at first because it seemed too small and close to home that I feared if I wanted to apply for a job at a prestigious newspaper or something, the person reviewing my application would laugh when they saw the name of that college under the education credentials on my application. I had also heard that a lot of other blind students had gone there, and I wanted to have a “real” college experience and not feel like I was going to a “college for the blind”. Of course I realize now that these were pretty stuck up and unfounded misconceptions because I quickly learned that graduates from this college went on to be very successful. One alumnus who came to speak at a welcoming ceremony my freshman year was one of the actors on the broadway version of The Lion King, which toured the country a couple years ago, and this year’s keynote speaker for commencement whom I wrote an article about for a special annual newspaper that comes out before commencement every year, was an alumnus who became the corporate executive of Target Corporation which is pretty prestigious if you ask me! It definitely wasn’t a “college for the blind” either because while there were three other blind students there when I started, there are also 2,500 other sighted students, so I have gotten a real college experience. I am so glad that I rose above these negative attitudes and decided to visit this college because from the moment I walked in to a quiet campus center lobby where my mom saw a sign that said “welcome Allison Nastoff”, I immediately felt a sensation that I belonged at this college, a sense that I had found home. This wonderful feeling was confirmed when a director of admissions greeted us warmly and took us to an inviting office where we had an individual meeting. I think this director even asked us if we wanted anything to drink, another stark contrast from the big colleges where there was not that sense of hospitality. Snacks and drinks were arranged on a table where you waited in line to help yourself. I forget what we talked about at this meeting, but I remember that for the first time, I left a college meeting feeling calm rather than overwhelmed. Then we went to the office of the disability services coordinator for another individual meeting, and although this coordinator mentioned I would still have to advocate my needs, somehow this prospect seemed less overwhelming at this college, which I think was because the fact that she asked me personal questions about my interests in addition to business questions like the accommodations I would need, made me feel like I would be viewed as a real person, not just a number, or worse, a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Then after that meeting, a campus tour was arranged. “Now is when reality will come back to bite me again,” was my first thought when I found out this tour had been arranged. But to my amazement, this tour did not require me to keep up with hundreds of other people. In fact, the only members of this tour group were myself and my parents! The tour guide, a student who I saw frequently around campus freshman year, walked us slowly around campus, clearly explained everything, and eagerly answered all of our questions. Also, while the campus is located in a city and there is traffic on the streets, it is a peaceful level of traffic, and once you get away from the street, you can enjoy a calming breeze and hear the birds sing. At the end of this tour which marked the formal end of this visit, there was no trace of a headache, and as my parents and I met my brother for lunch at a nearby restaurant, I was overwhelmed, but not by dread of what a stressful change college would be for my life, but excitement for what a positive college experience I sensed I would get from this college. I did not let my parents see this excitement right away because I still had those negative perceptions of small colleges, and we still had one more big college to visit which maybe would be a more positive experience. But deep down, I knew that this college visit was just a formality, and sure enough when I was greeted by another huge lecture hall of people at this college, I knew that God was telling me I belonged at Carroll College. In fact, I was so confident that I belonged at this college that despite the encouragement of my parents and teachers to apply to other places and maybe visit a few more colleges, Carroll was the only college I felt like applying to, since it was the only college that felt right to me. Somehow by the way I was made to feel so welcome, I just knew I would get in. If I didn’t get in to this college, that would be a sign that I wasn’t meant for college, and while I didn’t want to end up living in a van by the river, I decided I would prefer that over attending a college where I would be treated like a number rather than a real person. That comment by the way was not intended to offend any readers who did not go to college. It was from a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit the guidance counselor showed my freshman class before a career exploration activity to motivate us to study hard in school and start thinking about what kind of life we want after high school.
There was some anxiety about my decision to only apply to this school, and my sister who went to a big college was at first opposed to me attending such a small school since she thought bigger schools have more resources for people with disabilities. But after talking to another blind friend who went to a big school and hearing about how some teachers were not willing to make accommodations for her, I would not waiver in my decision that this small school was the perfect fit for me. There was also admittedly a little fear of what I would do in the chance that I was rejected by this school. But one cold December day, I went to school thinking it would turn out like any other day of coming home to nothing but the monotony of homework. However when I got in to the house, I smelled chocolate chip cookies and was greeted by an excited mother who said “I have a surprise for you” as she handed me a sweatshirt with CARROLL COLLEGE written on it in big raised print letters that I could make out, and that was how I found out that I had been accepted and officially welcomed to be a student at Carroll College! My mom said she couldn’t resist opening the letter, but I wasn’t disappointed that she was the first to know I had been accepted because the letter was in print anyway, but the surprise of the sweatshirt she went and bought from the Carroll bookstore meant that I got to experience the thrill and surprise of officially being accepted to college just like all of my sighted friends, and for the rest of the year, I found myself studying with a renewed sense of purpose.
From that first preview day with my parents, to the official preview day before becoming a freshman where one of the student orientation leaders said she would be happy to guide me through all the activities so I never felt overwhelmed despite being in a large group, and then through my first two years of college, I still experience that same welcomed feeling every day. Of course there have been difficult times like the rocky start to freshman year when the disability services office didn’t have all of my textbooks scanned, and my fair share of difficult classes that kept me up all hours of the night. But the individualized attention this college facilitates, the small peaceful campus atmosphere and support from my parents has allowed me to take on these difficulties with more grace than I ever could have at a big college. I have heard some pretty harsh criticism of this college’s Journalism program, but my mom said that I should not let this criticism affect my confidence that I had chosen the right college, and interestingly, she also mentioned that the nursing program at the college she attended was also criticized. But she is a wonderful nurse, and I am sure I will be a wonderful Journalist because the more I mature, the more I realize that a prestigious name is just a name, nothing more, and this college has given me the same educational opportunities I would have gotten from a big school. A few people may scoff at the name of my college, or the fact that I didn’t have the confidence to go far away and brave a big college, but with maturity, I have come to realize that I really don’t care what others think, and ultimately, I think choosing the college that is the best fit for me will exude more confidence than trying to impress people with a prestigious name. And on that note, I look forward to starting my junior year, another year that will confirm once again that choosing this college was perhaps the wisest decision I have ever made.