College Knowledge Podcast - Episode 2: Mentorship: How Not to Reinvent the Wheel
Being a college student with a visual impairment can be challenging but connecting to the College Success Program can help you make the most of this experience and succeed in reaching your goals. Join our mentors and cohosts, Bryan Duarte, Rachel Grider and Rashad Jones as they explore the academic, the professional, and the personal aspects of College Knowledge. If you are a college student who is blind or who has low vision, or you are curious about the world of college and visual impairment, this show is for you!
In this episode, our hosts interview Abigail Shaw, Learning Ally's College Success Program Mentorship Coordinator. Learn about why she considers her role to be that of a platonic matchmaker and hear from College Success Program mentors and students about what mentorship through the program means to them.
You can also find it on iTunes by searching College Knowledge or click here. Be sure to leave us a rating or review!
Learn more about the College Success Program and sign up at learningally.org/CollegeSuccess.
Episode 2: Mentorship: How Not to Reinvent the Wheel Transcript
Bryan Duarte: Welcome to College Knowledge, Learning Ally’s podcast for college students who are blind or low vision. This show brings together three core elements of Learning Ally’s College Success program – Mentoring, Resources and Community. I am your cohost Bryan Duarte, blind mentor, software engineer and universal designer. When you think about a mentor, what comes to mind? Is it someone who helped you through a tough time? Or maybe it was someone that helped you find the career path you were going to pursue. Maybe this person helped you become a better blind person or maybe just a better human in general. A mentor can be all these things and much more. Our Learning Ally CSP mentors have all undergone several interviews as well as a background check. We work with our students to set goals and we even celebrate with them when they achieve those goals. But, we are also individuals. Just like our students, we all come from different backgrounds, experiences with our vision and areas of interest. The person who coordinates this process is Abigail Shaw, part paper chaser, part interviewer, and to use her words, part platonic matchmaker. To interview her today is my cohost Rachel Grider.
Rachel Grider: Thanks, Bryan. Abigail thinks of blindness as one of many parts of her identity. She attributes her positive attitude about her disability to her mother, who worked as a sign language interpreter, but also developed extensive knowledge about visual impairment along the way. Abigail studied music and audio engineering and is now pursuing her masters degree in social work. She moved from her home state of North Carolina to Brooklyn, New York. She is also a runner who has competed in marathons in New York City with Achilles International. She is also, incidentally, the audio engineer for this podcast. Welcome to the podcast as a speaker, Abigail.
Abigail Shaw: Thanks, Rachel. It’s fun to be the person in front of the microphone.
Rachel Grider: All right. So, how did you become interested in College Success?
Abigail Shaw: I actually started working for the College Success program in the fall of 2015 as a mentor. Another staff person at the time had reached out to me and let me know that they were looking for mentors and shortly after being a mentor for about a semester, the position of mentor coordinator opened and the rest is history.
Rachel Grider: That’s great. So, onto something that I’m sure everyone is curious about – matchmaking. Why do you call yourself a platonic matchmaker? And how does the process work for you and for a student?
Abigail Shaw: So I kind of just think of it as a match. I’ve never witnessed or met someone who does matchmaking professionally. But the ways in which it’s conveyed through media or the classic Fiddler on the Roof musical, there’s usually really involved in getting to know as much as they can about these two parties and connecting them for, well, in the non platonic way of a happy life together as a married couple. But for all intents and purposes for our program, I think of it as a platonic matchmaker because I really try to learn as much as I can about the student and match them up with a mentor who has things in common with them; whether that’s through academics, the technology they use, their personality. So I compile all the information that the students and mentors both share with me and then I kind of shift things around and think about who would work best together.
Rachel Grider: Right. That’s great. Sounds like a hard job but it sounds like a lot of fun too. So as a blind student, I always wanted to know what a job was like from day to day. Could you describe what your job looks like on a daily basis?
Abigail Shaw: Yeah, so I also split my time at Learning Ally with our production department in helping to produce our audio books. So part of my day is spent on those tasks and the other part is on the College Success program. I’ve been working remotely for Learning Ally for the last about three years. So I work from home and occasionally go into our Princeton headquarters in New Jersey once a month or so. But I love getting to work from home. I create my own schedule. I have a little corner of my apartment where I always go to work. I have lots of meetings with our College Success program core team over video conferencing. I collaborate with my colleagues on Google Docs and Sheets a lot. I connect with our mentors and follow up on questions they might have in supporting students. I do a lot of reviewing of our audio for the audio books part and following up with our volunteer narrators and listeners to make sure that they are helping us to produce books in a timely manner so we can get them to students. So yeah so it’s kind of a mixed bag of things, a lot of interpersonal kind of work as well as some technical audio pieces too.
Rachel Grider: That’s great. So you, you do a lot. That’s amazing. So what is one piece of advice you’d give college students on their journey?
Abigail Shaw: So one thing I think when I think about starting college is that it was a bit of a scary time cause there was a lot of unknowns, certainly a lot of anticipation and excitement of getting to meet new people, learning lots of new things. But I think one thing that I would encourage students to remember is that it's ok to ask for help whenever you’re uncomfortable or not sure or you just need assistance doing something. Because asking for help doesn’t mean that you’re any less independent or capable. We all need to lean on each other at times. And so whether asking a professor to better explain an assignment, asking a roommate to help you if you’ve lost a shoe that has seemed to disappear into the abyss, asking somebody in the cafeteria if you’re holding a bottle of orange juice versus apple juice, I think it's ok. And we should encourage one another to reach out whenever we need help with the small things and the big things.
Rachel Grider: Excellent. So is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Abigail Shaw: I’m just really excited that we have this program. I wish it had been around when I was a student. And I’m excited that we’re expanding to do things like this podcast and I hope that students will continue to stay in touch with us and give us their feedback on how things are working or how they could be better.
Rachel Grider: Great. Thank you so much for coming on the program, Abigail.
Abigail Shaw: Thanks, Rachel.
Rachel Grider: Now we’d like to introduce a mentor and a couple of students who have benefited from this program. So first I’m going to bring Bryan back in. He is completing his PhD in software engineering at Arizona State University. He loves talking technology, writing software and building universally designed assistive technology. He is also the father of an 11 year old daughter and 9 year old twin sons. Bryan, welcome to the podcast as a guest.
Bryan Duarte: Thank you, Rachel. Appreciate it.
Rachel Grider: All right. So in general what was your college experience like and how did that inspire you to mentor?
Bryan Duarte: That is a great question and one that I love to share with those who I interact with. I like to be honest with everybody that I speak with about this because it really is the reason why I do what I do. I always tell people that my first semester was almost my last semester in college, at least in higher education. I first started. I took two classes at a community college and I thought things were going pretty well for what I could expect from a community college. And when I got to a university, I was always kind of under the impression that oh things are going to be so amazing. They’re going to have all the resources. They’re really going to have this accommodation thing down pat and the only struggle I’m going to have is doing the classes, right. Well I was wrong. I wasn’t as accurate. And I think a lot of our students can attest to this. That not all universities do have it down pat. Some might, but others don’t. So really what it takes is being able to advocate for yourself. And so my first semester was almost my last semester because I got there and I was taking calculus and physics and some pretty tough courses as a somewhat newly blind student. And there wasn’t much support there and it came to the point where I had to drop calculus and I had to focus all my time, so many hours in the tutor center. But I ended up getting through it. So my original stop was to not give up and just to keep going and seek out resources and kind of like we all do, we find workarounds and find ways to solve the problems that we face.
Rachel Grider: Yes. Thank you so much, Bryan. So onto mentoring, what do you enjoy most about mentoring?
Bryan Duarte: How much time do we got? I especially like mentoring. For me, mentoring is as much for me as it is for the students. And I tell all of them that, because I don’t look at them as mentees. I don’t rarely ever call them mentees. I like to think of me as developing relationships with them, friendships, if you will. My background is in computer science and software engineering which is a pretty specific area and it's one that not a lot of people are in if they have a vision disability. So what I am unique in is that I have students who I work with who are pursuing educational careers in that area. So we have a lot in common right out the gate. And we get to talk about things that we’re doing, things that we want to do. And it's so awesome as someone who has this innovative mind to hear and work with students who their mind is even more innovative. And it's so inspiring to me all the time when I meet these students. And I’m like, “Wait, how old are you and you’ve done what?” It’s very inspiring to me. So I really love to work with the students and to hear what they’re doing and what they want to do and just really come beside them and push them, not let them cut corners, and just keep letting them push it till they achieve what they want.
Rachel Grider: Wonderful, Brian. I can absolutely attest to that as well. So what would you say is one of the greatest challenges that you faced as a mentor?
Bryan Duarte: I, again just being honest, I think that one of the biggest challenges is, for me as someone who is trying to develop relationships, working relationships, friendships with students, is when they don’t want to ask questions. I can only help them or give them advice or coach them or share my experiences if I know what they’re going through. I can guess what they’re going through. But as we all can attest to, it’s not all one size fits all, right. So we can’t just guess that their experience is exactly like my experience. So if they don’t ask questions, if they don’t want to participate, if they don’t want to engage, it really is difficult for me to work with them. But for the most part, I think as engineers, they always have questions, they’re always used to going out and looking for answers. We always just kind of keep our channels, our networking resource channels open, if you will, that’s the people, that’s the websites, that’s the podcasts or the forums, whatever it is where we find answers open. So I don’t run into that too often but every now and then I get a student who I work with that it either takes them a long time to open up and ask questions or they just never really do. So that’s kind of the hardest thing for me.
Rachel Grider: So Bryan, what would you tell a student who is considering working with a mentor or a student who is required by a program to work with one?
Bryan Duarte: Great question. I would tell them definitely take the opportunity to partner with somebody, develop a relationship with somebody who… I think probably the best thing and I think that, you can attest to this as well, the best thing about the College Success program is the fact that they do a lot of work to match students with the mentor who is in their same walk of life. Either they’re pursuing music degrees or they’re already professional musicians, such as yourself, or they’re in acting or they’re social workers or they’re engineers. And they match you with students who are doing that same thing. So it’s so beneficial. I would say this to any student with a visual impairment or not, that you really need to open up yourself to seeking out resources. Those resources are people like I said, those resources are tutor centers, those could be groups or clubs or organizations. But when you don’t get yourself out there and you don’t get involved and network with people, you’re really closing yourself off to your full potential, I believe. Because there are people who have gone through what you’ve gone through, and it’s so important that we don’t reinvent the wheel, the title of this podcast, right – “Don’t Reinvent the Wheel”. Go for it, talk to them, ask them questions, pick their brain, brainstorm together and just really take advantage of the opportunity you have to learn from somebody who’s done what you’ve done, done what you could be doing.
Rachel Grider: Yes, I absolutely agree with you. It’s very difficult to be successful if you try to do everything alone, right?
Bryan Duarte: Absolutely, yes absolutely.
Rachel Grider: We need to network and our matchmaker knows what she’s doing.
Bryan Duarte: Yeah, platonic matchmaker professional.
Rachel Grider: Platonic matchmaker. Yes, so thank you so much, Bryan for sharing your insights. So now let’s go on to our two students. Our first student is Faizan Jamil, one of Brian’s mentees. And don’t worry, this isn’t like a reality show when the two of them will start yelling at each other. Faizan, welcome to the show. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Faizan Jamil: Thank you for having me. Lets see, where do I start. I am a student who’s studying computer science, studying in New Paltz. Currently, I’m in my third year of college. I hail from basically western Nassau County of Long Island, New York. It’s right near the city and I’ve been visually impaired since pretty much birth and it’s gotten to a point where I’m completely blind in my left eye, but my vision in my right eye is fine.
Rachel Grider: Ok great, thank you. So what is one challenge you have faced during college?
Faizan Jamil: More than ten. More than I can count on my fingers, I can tell you that much. Lets see, the one that keeps coming up and the one that’s always, I mean always at the forefront of my mind is always I got time management, where it's even, where it’s ok. Yeah, that we all have this issue in college it seems like. Well it’s, you have even with a semester like this current semester that we’re going through right now. I’m only taking three classes. I have a class where the professor is - nice lady. She gives a lot of work, she gives a lot of work and compound that with my other two classes, where one of them is Calculus 2, which for anyone who’s had the, let’s say, pleasure of taking that class, well who had the privilege of taking that class would agree, that’s not an experience you’d want to go through again.
Rachel Grider: I haven’t taken that class but I can imagine. I can definitely imagine what you’re talking about.
Faizan Jamil: Yeah, Bryan should know what I’m talking about.
Rachel Grider: Oh yes.
Bryan Duarte: Oh, I very much do.
Rachel Grider: Oh man, that’s why I’m a music major guys. All right, so how has working with a mentor helped with this challenge that you just described?
Faizan Jamil: Now Bryan, as you know, is my mentor. He has been extremely helpful when it comes to this sort of thing, that’s extremely helpful as, helpful as, someone can be in this situation where we will go exchange back and forth text messages. We were texting about this well a couple of weeks ago before my online classes started. He has been extremely helpful in the regard that I have been mentioning that I have struggles with time management, or this issue and that issue. He’s suggested ways that I can handle that with mobile apps or computer apps or whatever. So for time management specifically, he gave me a couple recommendations for apps like Google Keep. Microsoft has their own to do list app and there’s Any.do, Wunderlist that sort of thing. I eventually went with the Google option of Google Keep because I don’t use my Microsoft account that much and Google already has me in their clutches. So give them some more food to feed on if you know what I’m saying.
Bryan Duarte: They have us all, buddy.
Faizan Jamil: Yeah, they do.
Rachel Grider: Great. Thank you for sharing that. That is a great example of how your mentor has helped you and also how technology has helped you. So now that we’ve talked about challenges, what is one thing that you enjoy about college?
Faizan Jamil: The people. Without a doubt, it’s dorm life and the people you meet there. And that’s what’s absolutely made college for me. Right now, college to me is all about dorm life where, not that I have parties in my room and stuff like that, not that I’m too distracted from my studies but, I have a group of friends that I hang out with. I have a couple people that I very much enjoy the company of and that they, I hope, enjoy my company. But I consider them friends and I really hope that after college we can stay in touch. But we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully it will.
Rachel Grider: So do you feel that the social aspect of college is just as important as the academic aspect?
Faizan Jamil: Oh absolutely. I learned that firsthand my first year where I had a tough schedule for a first semester kid and I didn’t have a good group of friends to turn to. So I had to find one and luckily within the past couple, like past twoish years, I found one.
Rachel Grider: Excellent. That is wonderful.
Bryan Duarte: So Faizan, can you let us know. Have you used any of the school resources such as your gym or your tutoring center or have gotten involved in any clubs or organizations at school?
Faizan Jamil: Yeah sure. That’s a good question, Brian. Let’s just start with the facilities because that’s a bit of a shorter bit for me to say. So I have used the on-school gyms. So actually at my school it’s a bit interesting where we have a gym on campus which is spacious. It’s big. It’s all right. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a free gym so who’s going to complain. We also have a mini gym in some of the dorms, or at least in mine, where down in the basement 8:30 to 12 every night, the mini gym is open. And you can do some exercise there. There‘s no cardio stuff but they do offer yoga mats and stuff. I normally just hang around there because frankly, I confess in cold weather, I can’t be bothered to walk all the way to the gym in just gym shorts. So, but in short, I have used the gym, yes. I generally go there for stress relief and stuff. As for clubs, yeah I’ve been involved with one or two clubs. First semester, I was involved with a bit more but I had to sort of narrow it down to find clubs that I actually enjoyed going to. So right now I’m currently involved with two clubs. One of which is the gaming society on campus its called, I think, “Gaming Society of New Paltz” where they do a variety of gaming not just video gaming or board gaming. It’s sort of a mix of both where you have one…
Rachel Grider: That’s cool.
Faizan Jamil: Yeah I know. It’s awesome. I love it.
Bryan Duarte: Do you guys have LAN parties?
Faizan Jamil: I wish. I’d love for there to be LAN parties. But no, they usually just have console games and then board games like various games like Secret Hitler. Occasionally we have UNO nights or card games or D&D (Dungeons & Dragons). And I’m currently serving on the e-board for that club which I also very much enjoy.
Rachel Grider: That’s great.
Bryan Duarte: That’s really awesome. That’s good to hear because I think a lot of students are apprehensive about getting involved in clubs when they have any kind of disability, not even just a visual disability. So that’s really awesome that you shared that. I hope some students will take away that they can be fun and they are inviting whether you have a visual disability or not. Thank you.
Faizan Jamil: Because I’m blind in my left eye, I pretty much have to use a cane even though I can see fine. Not that many people have grilled me about it. People have questioned it, but they’re polite about it. So I got lucky there that I’m not facing any other obstacles with my visual impairment. Only thing is, I just got to move closer to the TV. That’s all.
Rachel Grider: That’s great. I think it's important too to realize, I think, what you shared about social life, being in clubs, being with your friends, how important that is. I think it’s absolutely key to having a successful college … is being able to network with people just like we were talking about. So, and it’s important, just as important as academics. So thank you for sharing your experiences both of you, Faizan and Bryan. Now we’ll speak with another student, Kaitlyn Ryan. So Kaitlyn, welcome to the podcast. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Kaitlyn Ryan: Thank you so much. Oh ok yeah. So my name is Kaitlyn. I’m 20. This is my 3rd semester in community college cause I went first semester Minneapolis and I was in training at a blindness center up there called Blind Incorporated. But now I attend Black Hawk Community College. So I attend Black Hawk Community College and I live in the student apartments up there. And I’m going to become a teacher of the visually impaired and I’m going to minor in spanish.
Rachel Grider: And what year did you say you were in college right now?
Kaitlyn Ryan: So I’m technically still a freshman cause I took … With Blind Incorporated, I was able to take community college classes while getting the independent living skills I needed. So actually I had the support of the Blind Incorporated staff. So it’s my third semester. I’m still considered a freshman.
Rachel Grider: Ok that’s great. All right so what is one of the challenges that you have faced so far during college?
Kaitlyn Ryan: So my first semester was pretty smooth sailing cause it was just two classes and I had the skills. But I’m actually a dog user. So actually the biggest challenge I have faced is access with my guide dog.
Rachel Grider: Oh wow can you elaborate on that please?
Kaitlyn Ryan: Oh yeah absolutely. So the disability coordinator was not really hip on me having a dog on campus. She was nervous about accidents and other issues. We did have a couple accidents when I was walking on my gym… My college gym has an indoor track. But I cleaned them up and took the appropriate precautions to correct her and do what I needed to do. But they were trying to tell me that the dogs just shouldn’t be on campus due to the fact that she could have accidents. And apparently some students were getting distracted by her because they could just look at her and not the teacher. So it was a lot of involving. I went to The Seeing Eye and I want to give a big shoutout to Melissa Allman who is the advocacy specialist at The Seeing Eye, who helped advocate with me and explain the ADA and explain all the laws about guide dogs and how the dog is helpful in making me an independent person. Also at the time there was a president whose name is Jim and he also explained the need of the dog because Jim and Melissa are both dog users themselves.
Rachel Grider: Oh man. Thank you for sharing that. I’m also a Seeing Eye graduate. So I know both Melissa and Jim and I have had them help me with similar issues. So I’m really, really glad they were able to. So now at this point are you still facing that type of access issue or has that pretty much been resolved?
Kaitlyn Ryan: It’s been resolved. So actually now my challenge is I’m in math class and we’re doing graphing and it's online because of the whole situation. So that’s my new life challenge.
Rachel Grider: So what have you done? Has your mentor helped you with this issue or what other ways have you found to get around this issue?
Kaitlyn Ryan: It kind of came up within the past couple of weeks because Megan and I do biweekly calls. Megan is my mentor and we’ve been texting a little bit about the graphing stuff. She’s actually calling me tomorrow. So we’re going to discuss it more. I’ve also been utilizing the college tutoring center. We have great tutors and they’ve been able to do tutoring over the phone with me. So that’s been super helpful in explaining the graph. Also the Disability Center was able to order raised graph paper. So that has been super helpful.
Bryan Duarte: If you haven’t used them already, I would look into Wikki Stix. Wikki Stix are a great way for you to build your graph in a tactile way. For those who don’t know, a Wikki stick is a little wax straw or wax string. It’s a string coated in wax and you can take those strings and you can bend them and mold them and push them and stick them on your raised graph paper. That’s how I used to do graphing as a blind college student doing calculus and such math things. So that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing that. It does sound like you are using the tutor centers which is also a great thing. Cause that’s the question I was going to ask you. So thanks for sharing that.
Kaitlyn Ryan: Oh no problem. And also, just for people, because Wikki Stix is a common name, but they also have been called Bendaroos in a lot of craft stores. They actually call them Bendaroos. So just in case students are like, “Ok let’s go get these.” And they go to a craft store and ask for customer assistance and they’re like, “What’s Wikki Stix?” You can say “oh, Bendaroos,” and they’re the same thing.
Rachel Grider: Tell me one thing, or several things if you’d like, that you have enjoyed so far about your college experience.
Kaitlyn Ryan: I love that, and it was the kind of setup in Blind Incorporated too, but I love meeting people from different backgrounds and diversities. I come from a small town of 800 people, so we all knew each other, and on a family farm. So honestly growing up I’m just like “Everyone has to live the same,” right. So I like that it’s taught me that everyone does live differently and has a bunch of different unique experiences. So I really like that and I just like the social part overall. I also love my job that I actually have on campus now and I just think college is overall easier than high school.
Rachel Grider: What job is this that you have on campus?
Kaitlyn Ryan: So I am what they call an event coordinator. So I advertise the different events that are happening on college, and get decorations up for them for like black history month, all the different African Americans that have made a difference and we put quotes up. We decorated the campus for Valentine’s Day and different stuff and then usually a few days before the event, we have a popcorn stand that we set up. That way if students are walking by they’re like, “oh, free popcorn,” and then I get to explain the event that is going on, the location, the time, the day and any other questions that students or staff may have about the event.
Rachel Grider: That’s great. So thank you so much for your wonderful insighst, Kaitlyn and for being on this podcast.
Kaitlyn Ryan: You’re welcome.
Bryan Duarte: Thanks, Rachel for those great interviews. Be sure to join us next time for episode 3, where we’re going to be talking all about relationships, relationships from a personal, professional and even romantic perspective with one of our venturing mentors, Caitlin Mongillo. Be sure to leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. And share with your friends that we have started this new journey of podcasting. Before we go, we’d just like to thank the Learning Ally staff for supporting us in the making of this podcast as well as our funders and stakeholders for supporting us in all that we do. Your co hosts for College Knowledge are Bryan Duarte, Rachel Grider and Rashad Jones. The program director is Mary Alexander. The podcast writer is Kristen Witucki. Abigail Shaw produced the audio and our social media and distribution manager is Katie Ottaggio. My name is Bryan Duarte. And thank you for joining us for College Knowledge.