Now that high school is going well and as classes, schedules and extracurricular activities are all sorted out, it’s time to look toward college plans. Before the nail biting and anxieties kick in, here are some personal observations and a few tips to help you prepare for that next big leap to higher education.
In writing this, I reflect upon my first experience with college and how ill prepared I was for my very first semester. As one of the first people in my family to participate in higher education, I struggled with where to start. The primary focus in my immediate family was to find a job and work hard to achieve a better life. As a young adult with significant vision loss, we soon realized that finding and maintaining work alone would not be enough to keep me successfully and gainfully employed. I needed a different plan. Throughout high school, I had many passive discussions about attending college with family and friends, but I never developed an action plan. It wasn’t until late in my senior year that my mom and I began to have serious discussions about attending college. I made it to college, and I learned some things along the way.
Learn About Yourself
First off, I learned that when it comes to college preparation, it all boils down to knowing what you want, networking, preparing to live on your own, identifying resources, and most of all, perseverance. One of the first considerations is to know a little about yourself. That may start with a self-assessment and or a visit to your high school’s career resource center. Identifying personal interests and activities will also help influence your road to college. A helpful and free online assessment tool is the California CareerZone
Learn About Different College Programs
With options to attend a local community college, or a state or private university, an assessment tool can help you pick which is best for you your goals. Factoring in your academic pursuits, career aspirations, and financial support; you are almost ready to filter which college environment is right for you. With blindness and or additional disabilities at play, you also want keep in mind which colleges provide the best campus and virtual supports for your disability needs. Attending College with A Disability is a great website and starting point for additional information. Also check out Higher Education for Students with Disabilities which is a great site for researching what college to attend with a disability. Finally, consider applying to a couple of colleges, think of these as back up options in case your first college of choice doesn’t come through
Now, for those of you who follow CareerConnect blogs, one of the recurring underlying points we frequently underscore is networking and connecting with other blind folks through our consumer organizations: the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). You can get started by checking out the ACB student division and the NFB student division. When I was working on my undergraduate degree, I frequently participated in networking among these groups as well as with the on-campus student-led disability organization. By networking with other blind students, I gained insights from trusted peers and an added boost of confidence knowing that I wasn’t the first blind person to tackle college. You don’t have to be in college to join a student division of ACB or NFB. By connecting with the leadership of student divisions while you’re still in high school, you can talk to college students a lot like you and hear their first-hand experiences as they share their challenges and successes. By joining a student division, you will also learn about student organized seminars and webinars geared towards your academic and career interests.
Prepare to Live on Your Own
Now that you’ve assessed your career interests, researched colleges, and talked with other blind students; it’s time to evaluate independent living skills. A good starting point is having a discussion with a few key people in your immediate circle to determine if you are truly ready to head to college. Be open to hearing you may need to brush up on some areas, or you may need to learn some skills you haven’t mastered yet. It may be that spending a few weeks or a semester at a training center where you can learn and practice independent living skills and advanced orientation and mobility (O&M) is what you need most. In some instances, if you have applied for college and received an acceptance letter and later determine that you need time to advance your activities of daily living, you may be able to defer your attendance by a semester or even a year.
Paying for College
With the independence that university life brings, paying for school also becomes a responsibility worth preparing for. One of the first priorities is assessing your family’s finances. The question to ask yourself is “can my help with college and or room and board?” Applying for student financial aid will want to be high on your college planner check list. But first, make sure you understand how financial aid works. Importantly, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form is your first step to both public aid (i.e., grants and loans) and private funding (i.e., scholarships and loans). Once you have applied for and accepted your college of choice, applying for scholarships comes next.
Scholarships come in all dollar amounts and can help pay for tuition and other related expenses. Scholarships & Resources for Students with Visual Disabilities: 2020, provides a comprehensive listing of scholarships specific to blind and low vision students. Expanding your scholarship search to include your unique interests coupled with your ethnicity and sometimes gender will also produce an additional scholarships and grants that you may be eligible for. Private scholarships are looking for well-rounded and articulate applicants. Be prepared to write thoughtful essay submissions and prepare for interviews when applying for scholarships.
Finding a part time or seasonal job while in high school can also help pay for future college expenses. Once you’re settled in college, finding a campus job (particularly one with flexible hours) can also help with the finances. Depending on where you live and attend college, your vocational rehabilitation program may be able to fund a portion of your academic expenses. Be prepared, rehabilitation programs typically request that you first apply for student financial aid and demonstrate that you are looking into scholarships before they can cover partial tuition or class materials.
Putting Your Plan into Action
You can minimize a lot of your and your family’s anxieties about college life by mapping your road to college while you are still in high school. Your high school IEP meetings are great times to bring together your family, mentors, teachers, and even your vocational rehabilitation counselor to draw up a transition plan with achievable goals. Discussion and planning for college will be an ongoing backdrop in high school: embrace it. You are not the first or the last blind college applicant. Reach out and network with your peers, family, and mentors.
The next blog in this series will cover campus life, disabled student services, accommodations, managing readers and note takers and more.