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Learning Ally's College Success Program podcast - College Knowledge - has officially launched!

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired, College Knowledge Podcast

Learning Ally's College Success Program podcast - College Knowledge - has officially launched!

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!

Episode 1: Welcome to the College Success Program!

In this inaugural episode of College Knowledge, our hosts interview two members of Learning Ally's College Success Program staff. Learn more about the program's history and origins, as well as about the program's hopes for the future.

Click here for Episode 1: Welcome to the College Success Program! Podcast Link

Learn more about the College Success Program and sign up at learningally.org/CollegeSuccess.


Episode 1: Welcome to the College Success Program! Transcript

Rachel Grider: Welcome to College Knowledge. Learning Ally's podcast for college students who are blind or visually impaired. We will being with episode 1 - A very brief history of college success at Learning Ally. In this episode we will introduce you to some of the program staff and explain briefly what the program is about. Here to help unearth this history is my co-host, Rashad Jones. 

Rashad Jones: Thanks Rachel. But before we get to that, I think we should probably tell our listeners why we’re here in the first place. So, what got you interested in the program?

Rachel Grider: Well Rashad, I have been blind all my life. I have always had a passion for music and I earned Bachelor’s degrees in vocal performance and composition and Master’s degree in voice performance and music theory pedagogy. After I graduated in 2013, I moved back to California to teach. I am currently teaching voice at an Arts Academy and choir at a local high school, as well as performing freelance. I began working as a CSP mentor in 2017  and I have really enjoyed it. I have learned a great deal from my colleagues and students and I really value the many discussions I have had with them. This program is such a great resource and I wish that it had been available to me when I was in school. So, how about you Rashad?

Rashad Jones: Well thanks Rachel. I’m Rashad Jones and I’m excited to be one of the hosts in College Knowledge, I really am. I have retinopathy of prematurity so that’s what caused my visual impairment. So it’s something I have dealt with all my life. I work at a local center, independent living, here in my hometown called Access to Independence. There, I help students of all ages focus on goals and developing their futures. I’ve worked for Learning Ally since 2016, and my students and I teach one another on a regular basis. You know, I was struggling in college, a music education major - so we’ve got some similarities there. But I was trying to figure it all out, often times on my own. So I really know what it's like to feel like you’re the only blind college student around anywhere. I know what it's like to know that you have potential but not really know how to unlock that potential. I’m excited to share some tips and tricks that will hopefully make your journey a little bit better and more fulfilling. 

Rachel Grider: Well, enough about us. Let's hear from our guests. Do you have our first guest Rashad?

Rashad Jones: Yeah, I sure do. Our first guest is Kristen Witucki, our curriculum and content editor who has been part of Learning Ally since 1993, part of its staff since off and on since 2005 and part of the program since 2014. Blind since birth, Kristen wears many hats in her life. In the CSP, College Success Program, she’s in charge of hunting down engaging content for you, the students. Outside of the program, she is an author, a teacher, and the mother of 3 children. So, welcome Kristen to College Knowledge.

Kristen Witucki: Thanks Rashad and Rachel for having me.

Rashad Jones: Alright so let's get started. I got us a few questions to ask you. So, how did you become interested in the program?

Kristen Witucki: Well, I’ve been in college a long time, probably longer than most people recommend. So, my Bachelor’s degree is in music and I have Master’s degrees in Gifted Education, Creative Writing, and teaching students who are blind and visually impaired. Along the way, I’ve had a lot of great experiences in higher education and some that weren’t so good. So I think of myself primarily as an introvert for instance, but I had to learn to be really outgoing and to advocate any second to make sure that I can participate fully in my college experience. And a lot of students who are blind and visually impaired, if they’re lucky, have to transition from having a lot of support in the K-12 setting such as aids and TVI’s, and O&M,  to having much, much, less support in a college setting. And I really wanted to develop materials that addressed them directly as they go through that transition. 

Rashad Jones: Okay, yeah that makes a lot of sense. Really providing that support is something that I feel very strongly about so I’m glad that we have you to head that up. So could you please tell us how the program got started? 

Kristen Witucki: Learning Ally contracted with a research firm called Conifer and the firm wanted to find out what students who are blind or visually impaired really needed and I think Learning Ally was expecting to get some recommendations about books because as many people know, we are at least, first and foremost. As many people know, we are an audio book library, so Learning Ally was hoping to gather some information on how to make the books better, but they were also open to basically anything that came out of the research and Conifer followed a group of fifteen students through their semesters at college, and spent time with them inside and outside of their classes and talked with them and people who worked closely with them. And based on all of that data, they came up with four key insights that really drove our program. The first insight was that students really needed to be at the center of their learning from day one, when they started school. So they had to be aware of all of the people in their networks, who were there for them, but also how to actually utilize those relationships right away, and if they didn’t, they were already behind. People in their networks included professors, disabilities offices, people the offices contracted with to help with reading or note-taking, just to name a few of those relationships and there are several more. And that’s way more than a typical student would have to deal with so the VDI student really comes in having to work with those relationships right away. And if they weren’t, if they weren’t proactive with them then they were falling behind. The second insight was that the classroom was really at the center of people’s learning experiences. If you didn't show up to class, you missed a whole lot of information, even if you were trying to catch up with the notes. And if you were in class, and you had a professor who wasn’t working very well, who was talking in visual language saying this and over there and as you can see from the picture I’ve drawn on the board, that student was again already very much behind. The third insight was that students really needed to use technology efficiently, which many of them could, because we are in a digital age but they were not applying it very well in a college setting. So you can’t really write a paper on your iPhone for instance - just doesn’t work. And then the final insight was that students were often isolated from campus activities, whether it was because things were posted on signs, or they didn’t know how to get to the meeting or the dining hall or wherever or they just felt self-conscious about putting themselves out there. A lot of students ended up being isolated. Another thing that led to social isolation was that some of the students in the study were taking courses online. They were doing this for financial and logistical reasons, but one drawback to that was that they felt really disconnected from their peers. So basically, we took all of that information and we designed a program that we hope addresses some of those concerns and others that came up along the way. 

Rashad Jones: Okay, alright, got you. Sounds like a lot went into developing the program and a lot of care was taken so it could be the best it could be. So, could you just describe the primary components of the program? What is the program really made up of?

Kristen Witucki: The first component of the program is the one I think is the most popular, and it's certainly the one that students engage with the most deeply and that is mentorship. So, students meet with mentors who are blind or visually impaired and often the mentors share their interests, their broad field of study, or their visual impairment or their technology. There’s something that they have in common. And the mentors are people who have successfully navigated their undergraduate experience, so they’re in grad school or they’re working or both, and can really relate to where the students are and can help them to make sure they don’t have the terrible experiences that we saw in our research. The second component of the program is the one that I primarily work with, and that is a curriculum of resources. So we have several courses that students can access on their own time about a number of challenges that come up when you are blind or visually impaired and you’re in college. The original five courses came directly from our research. So, they are communicating with professors, discovering technology, learning effectively, making social connections and partnering with your disabilities office. They’re all pretty self-explanatory and we will delve into them in future episodes. And then the courses we came up with since the program started after those first five were launched, were basically based on mentor feedback, so, for instance, we are very lucky to have a travel and O&M course written primarily by an O&M instructor with help from mentors, and we have a course about living on your own for the first time, we have one about career exploration, one about low vision. So there’s a lot of dynamic content in the curriculum that is always changing and growing so we’re really happy about that. 

Rashad Jones: Yeah, as one of the mentors, one of the things we have to do is go through every so often test the curriculum out so to speak and I have noticed that over the years that I’ve been working with Learning Ally and the College Success Program, it’s gotten better and better every time so, I think it it’s something hopefully that is useful to the students.    

Kristen Witucki: And the final component is community and that takes many different forms, from our Facebook pages, that everybody can see, to our Facebook group for members to a weekly meetup event that basically allows students who are in the program to chat informally with mentors. One of the exciting developments from the meetups is that these are events that really encourage all students to join and some of the students who are already working with mentors are joining. But a lot of new students come on and they just wanna check out what the program’s about and stay for a few minutes and then they end up signing up for a mentor and I think that’s a really cool development. 

Rashad Jones: Yeah, okay. That’s really cool. So moving right along here, I’ve got another just a few questions for you. You’ve been so generous, might as well as keep you talking. So, what is your job like on a day to day basis? 

Kristen Witucki: Well, I work primarily from my home office, which is in Highland Park in my house, about half an hour from Learning Ally’s headquarters in Princeton. I’m close enough so that I can go into the office when I’m needed and when I don’t go in, I meet with colleagues through Zoom, which is an accessible meeting software platform. And then to complete my work, which is a lot of writing and editing, I use either a computer running JAWS for Windows, or I use a BrailleNote. I work really closely with our marketing and social engagement manager who you’ll meet in a few minutes, the mentor coordinator who you’ll meet in the next episode, our program director and some program staff. So just to give you an idea of some of the random things I end up doing, for instance, I’ll write a letter about an event and the engagement manager will edit it and then prepare it for distribution or she’ll write something and I’ll check it. I work really closely with the mentor coordinator to interview mentors and train them. I offer support to a group of them. I communicate with program stakeholders like funders and the advisory panel, which is a group of experts who helps to influence the shape of our curriculum. Often in the summer, if I can, I supervise an intern or two, and finally, most importantly, I sometimes write but I usually just facilitate course topics or blog content. Usually I feel like just my experience is not really enough to have a robust curriculum so I get a lot of input from our mentors or other experts in the field, or blind students I know and that’s what gives the curriculum its dynamic voice I think.

Rashad Jones: Yeah, for sure. Like I said earlier, you’ve done an incredible and continue to do an incredible amount with the program. You’re awfully busy, do you ever have time to breathe? Do you ever? 

Kristen Witucki: Yes, yes! But only because breathing is an involuntary activity.

Rashad Jones: That’s the only way you could fit it in I think, yes! So, just as we are wrapping up this interview, what projects or new changes are you looking forward to in the future for the program? 

Kristen Witucki: Well, we’re hoping to expand some elements of the program, to high school students, so that they can learn some of these skills before they get to college and don’t have time to look at the curriculum. We want them to actually know how to communicate with their professors before they ever have to do it. But we’re not quite sure what that’s going to look like just yet. We’re still gathering data through surveys and through focus groups to try and figure that out. 

Rashad Jones: Yeah. I think that's going to be a really, really cool piece that we implement if we're able to do it because you know, with most things, the earlier you start on something, the more familiar and comfortable you are with it, and it just makes the whole process go that much more smoothly. So that's something that I personally am looking forward to. All right. So, moving along again, what is one piece of advice that you would give to a student on this journey?

Kristen Witucki: Well, it can be scary and overwhelming at times, but try to delve into a few different interests. So if there's more than one hobby that you're interested in, maybe try to explore it. Um, if you can, while you have these four or so years to do it, because you never know where your job life will take you and having a few different areas of knowledge that you love will make it a lot more interesting and your adult career a lot more satisfying, I think. 

Rashad Jones: Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like you're saying just, don't be afraid to get out there and see what all you can do between all your studies. 

Kristen Witucki: Yeah, exactly.

Rashad Jones: Okay. All right. Well, Kristen, really thank you so much for coming in and sharing all that you do and everything that you've contributed to our program. And we really appreciate you taking the time to stop by this evening. 

Kristen Witucki: Thanks Rashad.

Rashad Jones: No problem. Thank you. Well, unlike our last guest, our next guest is relatively new to the program, but she's already brought a social energy and we're really noticing that students are engaged more and we're happy about that. So Katie Ottaggio lives in Pennsylvania, has a passion for marketing and is a mother of two. So welcome Katie to College Knowledge. Thank you so much for joining us.

Katie Ottaggio: Thanks for having me.

Rashad Jones: Alright. Well, I've got a few questions for you. How did you become interested in college success and in blindness and visual impairment in general?

Katie Ottaggio: Yeah, so I definitely have a different story than everybody else on the podcast. I'm new to this. This is new to me. I'm not new to school programs to education college programs, but I'm new to the blind and visually impaired community. So, that's one aspect of it that is very interesting to me. It's always an interesting for all of us to learn about something new. So I'm really enjoying that piece of it. But I come to Learning Ally, I'm really new. I started back in October. So I've only been here for a few months and I've worked though before that in a lot of education programs, everything from health and wellness programs, school feeding programs, STEM competitions, financial literacy and education, just a wide variety of things. And, when I learned about this position, which is a engagement marketing type position, it really was attractive to me. And I thought that it would be a great opportunity to continue working on education programs, but in a new capacity. So that's how I kind of landed here!

Rashad Jones: Okay. Well that sounds wonderful. We are, again, certainly just thrilled to have your spirit and vitality in that side of what we do. So, you know, welcome aboard!

Katie Ottaggio: Thanks!

Rashad Jones: So what is your role in the program speaking of which?

Katie Ottaggio: So technically my title is CSP engagement operations manager. So that's a long way of saying that I pretty much market and engage the program. So there's kind of two aspects to what I do. I bring about brand awareness to the program. I put out things like social media and emails and really just try to get the name out there. So people are aware that there's this great resource out there available to them. And then from there, once people are signed up, I do a lot of work to get them more engaged in the program, to be using it, to be aware of any new things that we may have coming out. All the things that you would expect to hear once you've already joined a program. So that's kind of the two sides of what I do. I work with Kristin, who you just heard from before. We worked together a lot and she mentioned, writing emails and stuff and in social things. And that's where I come in and I work with other members of the team and across Learning Ally and really, my focus is just on making sure that this program is put out there into the world and people are aware of it. And then once they know about it, that they're using it.

Rashad Jones: Okay. So that kind of includes your day to day kinda hit on, on what I was going to ask you about next, but that's kind of your day to day just coming up with posts and things like that to market us, or is that part of what you do?

Katie Ottaggio: Yeah! It’s anything that falls under a marketing bucket. That can be social media, that can be emails that can be if Learning Ally decides to go to a conference and exhibit or to a workshop or put on a webinar or things like this podcast, it's creating, taking all that content, kind of creating it, putting some words around it and then getting it out there through, however (and) whatever means make the most sense for us to do that. So that's kinda what it all boils down to. 

Rashad Jones: Okay. All right. Sounds really good. So we're wrapping up this interview, but I did have a few more questions for you. So what projects are you looking forward to in the future? I know you're just now getting here, just a couple of months ago, a few months ago, but what do you think is on the horizon for us? 

Katie Ottaggio: I, you know, like you said, I haven't been here long, so I'm still learning a lot. But I'm really looking forward to unearthing some of the great success stories of our mentors, of our students, of people involved in the program and really getting those out there. I think it's a really cool thing to be able to see yourself in somebody else's experience. And I think there's a lot of students out there who could really benefit from hearing what other people, other students like them are going through or dealing with. So I'm really excited to get that stuff out there because I think there's a lot there. 

Rashad Jones: All right. Sounds so exciting. And then, what piece of advice would you give to anyone who's either interested in the program or studying and need a little bit of help. What would you say? 

Katie Ottaggio: Oh! I thought about this question a lot and what I would say, and because there's so many pieces of advice that you can give and you hear how many graduation speeches and they tell you all these cliche things, but I really distilled it down to one thing - kinda of like what I tell my kids when they're trying vegetables for the first time, try everything once and then try it one more time. Do the same thing with your classes or with getting out there and meeting people or having conversations. Try it and then try it again. Hopefully it'll work out. It will work out!

Rashad Jones: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. So it's not just a one and done, you advocate going the extra mile and try it one more time just to make sure you don't like it.

Katie Ottaggio: Exactly. 

Rashad Jones: And then see how, how it all shapes out from there. Okay, gotcha. That sounds like a great piece of advice for all of us. Thank you so much, Katie, for coming on and sharing with us. It's been a pleasure having you on.

Katie Ottaggio: Thank you, you’re welcome. 

Rachel Grider: Thank you, Rashad for those great interviews. What's next on the podcast?

Rashad Jones: All right, well next we'll be talking to the boss. No, actually next time we'll be talking to our mentorship coordinator. She's kind of like the matchmaker of the program. She matches up the mentors and the mentees and makes sure everybody is happy with one another. That's kind of what she does. Then we'll talk with some students and some other mentors about the program and their outlook on things. 

Rachel Grider: Excellent. So join us next time for episode two - Mentorship or How not to Reinvent the Wheel. And please leave us a review on iTunes and tell your friends we're beginning this exciting new venture. 

Rashad Jones: Before we go, we just like to take the time to thank the Learning Ally staff for supporting the launch of College Knowledge. All of our funders and stakeholders, our programming director who is Mary Alexander. The script was written by Kristen Witucki who we heard from earlier. The show’s audio engineer is Abigail Shaw and our social media distributor is Katie Ottaggio. So thank you goes out to all of you guys for helping us put this on.