The following article by Barbara Trainin Blank appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The New Social Worker. It features a top winner of Learning Ally's 2013 National Achievement Award for students with visual impairments, Susan Vanino, who was recognized for her outstanding academic achievement.
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isn’t the type to let challenges daunt her. Diagnosed with macular degeneration since childhood, her vision has deteriorated throughout her life, leaving her almost entirely blind.
Many years after earning an associate degree in early childhood education and raising two children with her husband of 37 years, she returned to school as a non-traditional student for a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Some say she is following in her child’s footsteps, as her daughter also earned a BSW from Ramapo 12 years earlier. Now, Susan is pursuing her MSW at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, in the advanced standing program.
“I chose NYU because of its outstanding academic reputation and its strong focus on clinical work,” says Susan, who graduates in May.
Before returning to college, Susan worked for five years as the Adjustment to Vision Loss (AVL) Program Coordinator in Hackensack, NJ. AVL is an extensive network of peer support groups located throughout New Jersey. These groups provide individuals experiencing vision loss with relevant information, emotional support, and a special kind of understanding that might not be found elsewhere.
Susan continued full-time work with AVL during her undergraduate studies at Ramapo College, while also attending classes full-time. Currently, her social work internship is with Comprehensive Behavioral Healthcare, Inc., where she facilitates individual and group psychotherapy sessions with adults diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, as well as major depressive and bipolar disorders.
For her achievements, Susan is receiving a National Scholastic Achievement Award from Learning Ally, a nonprofit founded in 1948 as Recording for the Blind. It now serves individuals with print disabilities, as well as dyslexia and learning disabilities.
Learning Ally has the world’s largest library of audiobooks, which Susan uses in her schoolwork, along with computer technology. A screen reader that works with MS Office allows her to do what seeing people can.
Susan and other awardees were awarded a scholarship and will be honored at a dinner in Washington, DC, on April 26.
“Susan was chosen because she demonstrates leadership in the community and is a role model to so many others,” says Doug Sprei, national media director at Learning Ally. “She is always reinventing herself and moving forward, constantly trying to reach her potential. She has a lot of inner vision and is resilient.”
Susan is an inspiration in a world in which the blind are often “woefully unemployed,” he adds. “She wants to give back.”
Kim Lorber, associate professor of social work and convener of the gerontology minor at Ramapo College, agrees. Having taught Susan in two classes, social work research methods and human behavior in the social environment, she calls her a “stunning student.”
“She’s brilliant, but also very easygoing,” says Lorber. “Other students adore her. One can debate who learned more from whom, but I learned a lot.”
“She cuts herself no slack,” using technology and her own intelligence to achieve a near-perfect GPA, adds Lorber.
Susan has won a number of awards and scholarships. She is a mentor for the Bell-Ringer Program of the Joseph Kohn Training Center, and sits on the board of the Garden State Guide Dog Users and the Glen Rock Handicapped Persons Advisory Board.
Last July, Susan was honored at Arm & Hammer Park, in Trenton, New Jersey, by the members of the Trenton Thunder Baseball Team, the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, and the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The 2013 Trenton Thunder Scholarship for Leadership and Community Service was awarded on the ball field at a pre-game ceremony to Susan, who was accompanied by her guide dog “Q.”
Outside of work and school, Susan likes “any kind of concerts, but mostly rock and ’60s-’80s bands,” such as the Eagles and Journey. She also enjoys spending time with her husband and two adult children, as well as her two golden retrievers and black Labrador guide dog.
Through working with individuals with mental illness and physical disabilities, “I realized how a lot of people are not as fortunate as I am,” Susan says. “As a social worker, I can touch a lot of lives.”
Freelance writer Barbara Trainin Blank, formerly of Harrisburg, PA, now lives in the greater Washington, DC, area.
View the entire Spring 2014 issue of The New Social Worker here.