By: Caitlin Mongillo, CSP Mentor
CSP Mentor, Caitlin Mongillo, shares her advice for college students who are blind or have low vision as they get an early start on planning their summer activities during a pandemic.
I am not a fan of the winter. The bite of frost ever present in the New England air from November to March causes me nothing but displeasure. On this late January evening, my thoughts are turned, not unusually, towards summer. As a college student, yours should be, too. Of course, the summer will be an opportunity for you to kick back, relax, hang out with friends and hopefully have a nice reprieve from some of your academic responsibilities. But I would encourage you to think about your summer now, while January still clutches at over half the country with aggressive, frozen fingers. View it with excitement, but also view it as an opportunity to gain some life experience. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this year like no other, and it's very possible that many of us will have a much more virtual summer than we would like to have. However, we do think these tips, with some modifications, can still help you to enjoy summer safely this year, as well as out in the world next year. Here are some tips to consider early, as you think about how you might spend your summer.
Get a Job
One of the most rewarding ways to spend your summer is by getting a job. Not only does this put some cash in your pocket, but it's also a terrific way to build up a resume and show a future employer that you are motivated and didn't just spend three months of your life binge watching Netflix and sun tanning. Summer jobs can be great ways to garner experience in a field you are considering as a career choice in the future. If you're considering becoming a teacher, look around to see if there are camp counselor positions available in your area or if a nearby family needs a nanny. If you're interested in accounting, see if a small business owner has a need for someone to keep their books. If you want to work with animals, check out local boarding kennels or animal shelters to see if they're in need of dog walkers or technicians. Be creative in terms of the jobs you look for; even if you're stuck working as a receptionist or performing maintenance duties, look for ways to take on additional responsibilities and really own that temporary position.
I am not so idealistic that I do not realize there are challenges to summer employment. First of all, businesses or organizations may spend an entire year being completely staffed, and have no need for extra hands. Second, and maybe most important, it can be exceedingly difficult to convince an employer that your blindness or low vision will not hinder your work performance. I urge you to start looking for work early; this way you're not scrambling if you do get turned down from some of the opportunities you apply to. Employers love confidence, not arrogance. If you have thought out contingencies for how you will cope with your blindness or low vision on the job, this will help to put them at ease. Make a plan ahead of starting for what assistive technology you will need to be successful, what transportation you will utilize to get to work, and what supports from agencies, coworkers and family you will need to help you solve problems if/when they arise. Your university probably has a Career Center. Staff there may be able to assist in generating ideas for employment you may want to pursue. And, if you commute or live locally, they may even have a list of area employers looking for summer assistance. You can also reach out to counselors available to you through your state's Department of Rehabilitation Services. They should be able to assist you in locating a job, advocating for your needs with an employer, and may even pay you directly to work with a previously established business or organization. They will understand the unique needs you have as a worker with a visual disability. Most importantly, don't lose faith if you can't find a summer job, you do have other options.
Get an Internship
Internships can be paid or unpaid. They are a terrific way to get specific skills you will need at a job in the future. You should look for an internship in an area you are seriously considering pursuing as a future career. Internships are set up a bit differently from paid work. Your university may have an internship development office, or career counselors may be able to assist you in finding an internship. If not, speak with your academic advisor. This is most likely going to be a professor in your major field of study, so they will be able to give you ideas for types of businesses and organizations which match your area of interest. As we all know, the internet is a wealth of information. Utilize it to the best of your ability to find an internship. This may look like surfing job search websites, finding places you could see yourself working, and calling to make an appointment to speak with someone in person. Even if they are not hiring, you can ask if they are looking for an intern; you might be stuck making copies, doing the requisite coffee run or being the designated meeting note taker, but you will hopefully be doing these somewhat menial tasks in an environment you want to work in someday in the future. Use those lunch breaks and quiet moments to speak with staff, understand how they got their positions, and really familiarize yourself with the duties of someone in your future field. This will help you to understand if, years down the line, you can envision yourself doing the same work.
There are so many ways you can volunteer. You can shape your local, or even your global, community. If you are interested in volunteering internationally, there are many organizations who are glad to send college students to other countries. Sometimes this looks like building houses in South America, working at a field hospital in a remote part of Africa, or conducting experiments related to land conservation on an isolated beach somewhere beautiful. Often, volunteer organizations offer stipends or scholarships for students who want to participate in their mission. It's so important to do your research and look into these opportunities early. Nonprofit organizations will most likely have a limited number of scholarships or a capped amount of funding they can provide. The phrase "the early bird catches the worm" is definitely true for these types of international experiences.
Volunteering certainly doesn't mean you need to leave your country. There are plenty of avenues you can go down locally if you would like to volunteer over the summer. Does your town have a senior center or nursing home? Maybe they need assistants to push wheelchairs or assist with recreational activities. Does your county have a hospital? There might be opportunities to rock babies in the neonatal intensive care unit or to deliver food to patients rooms. If you're more the outdoors type, find out if parks in your area need cleaning or playground equipment needs repairing. Volunteer activities look terrific on a resume, and make you feel good about yourself. If you have time and talents, which you doubtless do, consider sharing them with the world for free. It will make a big difference for you and for others.
Take a Class
It can be taxing to balance academic responsibilities with a social life and living away from family. Some college students may find that they are only able to take three or four classes at once, and that's OK. This can mean that summer is an excellent time to grab a few extra credits in a more relaxed atmosphere. A lot of students will take a course at a local community college over summer break. Some colleges/universities will allow you to take a summer course for major credit at a separate institution, but many prefer that you only take a general education course or two over the summer. If you've been putting off that dreaded mathematics course because it just seems impossible given your already daunting workload, try saving it for the summer when you have nothing but time to devote to Pythagorus and his theorems. Check with your academic advisor or department head about the university's thoughts on summer classes and how one might just be able to fit into your vacant summer schedule.
Network, Network, Network
The final way you can make the most of your summer is probably the simplest and requires the least upfront effort. Network as much as you can. Attending a summer blindness convention? Great, go to as many meetings as possible and reach out to as many individuals as you can while you're there. Seek out professionals in your future field, and talk with them about your major, your dreams, and how someone who is blind/VI works successfully in that field. Talk with anyone you can about what you're studying and what direction you want your life to go in after graduation. You never know what resource or piece of advice they may offer. Better still, you never know who their brother or uncle or grandmother could be and how that person's influence could help you some day in the future. When someone finds out you go to college, they will doubtless ask you what you're studying and hat you want to be when you grow up. Though it may seem exhausting to deliver the same answers countless times, try to look at those moments as opportunities to learn and to grow. After all, you never know what positive things can come out of any interaction.
Unique Considerations for the Pandemic
Covid-19 has put a wrench in some of these ideas. You may not be able to travel outside of your house, let alone around the world, this summer. Furthermore, many internship and volunteer opportunities have either disappeared or shifted online. However, the bizarre "silver lining" of this pandemic is that sometimes you are not limited to working in your geographical region. You can live in California and have an internship on the East Coast without worrying about airfare or summer rental options. As you look for jobs or internships, figure out the course you want to take, or network, use the virtuality of everything to your advantage.
The future is scare. It is this big, uncertain thing that looms over us. It can be especially terrifying if you're in college and don't know yet how you want the future to look. But, take a deep breath and try to envision it as something rich with possibilities and choices. One of the best ways to define how your future might be is to really use your time wisely, and that includes your summers. As you can see, a lot of the greatest opportunities to explore your future can happen over the summer. Many do require some extra effort or action steps be taken early on, so use your spring semester as a means to shape your summer into something you can be proud of. Soon, the temps will soar and the icy lemonade will be plentiful. I hope that, on those days, you find yourself engaged in some kind of activity which brings you joy and a bit more knowledge about just how bright your future will be.