Meeting Students Where They Are - Virtually

September 16, 2020
SPCS launches STEPS to Success for visually impaired students

By Olivia du Bois, ’22

The Zoom meeting began with some light teasing as one instructor’s sound cut in and out. The students joked with one another and with the adults, their laughter and camaraderie a testament to how well they had adapted to this two-week, intensive college-prep course. But what was more impressive than their passion for learning and commitment to hard work was the story of all their achievements in the face of and often as a result of their visual impairments.

On July 6, the School of Professional & Continuing Studies STEPS to Success program in conjunction with the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired (VRCBVI) launched a college preparation course for visually impaired students, the first partnership of its kind developed with the University of Richmond. All students selected for the program underwent a rigorous application process and showed a unique passion for learning, making it no surprise when the program succeeded. 

Last December, VRCBVI staff approached SPCS about creating this program. Mary Catherine Raymond, senior program manager at SPCS, worked with VRCBVI staff to create the original plan for a residential program, but COVID-19 prompted a shift to online learning. 

The six students chosen to participate attended classes taught by Sam Bruce, a professional career advisor, and Barbara Paterson, the School’s lead SAT Prep instructor, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday through Friday. The rest of the day was made available for individual meetings with students and office hours.

Paterson started the morning off with her English 101 lesson, giving the students test taking skills, teaching grammar and practicing with SAT reading comprehension and language usage questions. Paterson also guided the students in crafting their personal essays for the college application process. 

After a short break during which Raymond gave the students a riddle to solve, Bruce picked up with his Leadership 101 lesson. In week one, Bruce taught career processes and preparation including resume building and interview skills. The second week was about leadership, focusing on different types of leadership, problem solving techniques and learning from failure.

Additionally, students completed required reading from Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life... and Maybe the World by Admiral William McRaven. Both instructors were impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm with which the students completed their work. When Bruce asked students why they had joined the program, many responded by saying they had wanted better preparation for college life and to gain overall, personal growth. 

“It was, to me, a moving experience,” Bruce said, “one that taught me very much about myself and about the beauty of others and others that can't see.”

The students themselves were an impressive group. Two of the students learned English as a second language in addition to knowing braille. One played violin, another was a sandwich artist and another could recite the whole periodic table from memory when he was in elementary school. All of them had stories to share that showed their exceptional abilities.

Raymond attended every class and was an integral part of the program, working diligently to ensure that it ran smoothly and that the students got as much out of it as possible. At the end of each day, she and the instructors would put in late hours discussing how to approach challenges that came up and how to improve class for the next day. During the program, Raymond said she had learned a lot about accessibility needs for blind and visually impaired students, which she could put to use in the future when building the next program.

Raymond also explained that both instructors jumped right into the new challenge, embracing the task fully. Joanne Wiggins, a staff member at VRCBVI who attended many of the sessions, said she had noted the quality of student-teacher interaction and how it contributed to the creation of an effective, online learning environment. 

“When you're teaching,” Wiggins said, “it’s the relationship between the teacher and the student that really makes it. Information you can get out of a book, but learning comes from interacting with the teacher or your own interaction with the material.”

Even after the program, students have kept in contact with Bruce and Paterson, continuing to ask for career, school and life advice and, exemplifying the bond created over the course of those two weeks. 

The program culminated in a virtual graduation ceremony on July 17 during which each student presented the college admissions essay they had written or another piece of work to the group. Attendees included Raymond Hopkins and Dr. Rick Mitchell, commissioner and deputy commissioner for services at the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired; Melody Roane, director of VRCBVI; and David Kitchen, SPCS associate dean. 

Many people from SPCS and VRCBVI played a role in the program’s success. A lot of planning and behind the scenes logistics work went into it, Roane said, but everyone involved stepped up to the plate. Roane explained that this program had been years in the making at VRCBVI. 

“Over the years,” Roane said, “we wanted to have a program where blind students — blind, high school students — could have the opportunity to participate in college classes with graduate students or with professors or instructors to get feedback on their college readiness skills.”

This program, although it pivoted from residential to online, accomplished that goal and more.

A 2021 program might include more classes and run for longer, Wiggins said. Roane said that VRCBVI looks forward to partnering again with SPCS next year in a residential version of the program.