Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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Stepping Up and Out

by Mary Fernandez

Mary FernandezFrom the Edtior: Mary Fernandez attends Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she majors in psychology and music. At the 2010 NFB convention she was awarded the Charles and Melva T. Owen Memorial Scholarship.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Launch! In a cloud of smoke the rocket erupted from the launching pad with a resounding BOOM! Cheers rang out in the operations room of the NASA Wallops Island blockhouse. All of us teenage rocket scientists hugged each other and screamed. We could not quite believe that our rocket had just taken off.

In my excitement I almost forgot to report back the altitude of our rocket. But somehow I got hold of myself and ran to my station. "5,610 feet!" I yelled. Soon the rocket started its descent. At 2,000 feet someone else yelled, "Parachute has deployed!" A few minutes later our rocket landed gently off the Virginia shore. A NASA crew waited to pick it up, preferably intact, and bring it back to be stored at the Jernigan Institute at the National Federation of the Blind headquarters.

Not many fifteen-year-olds ever have the experience of launching a ten-foot sounding rocket from a NASA facility. I was fortunate to be a participant in the Rocket On! program sponsored by the Jernigan Institute in 2006. I was one of twelve blind students selected from around the country to take part in the program. We spent a week in Baltimore, where we prepared the payload for a rocket that we would launch ourselves. The Rocket On! program was one of the most inspiring and defining experiences of my high school career. It gave me the confidence and determination to attend one of the top colleges in the nation, travel to Paris for a summer, intern at a small nonprofit organization, and do extensive research.

A Thirst for Education

I was born in Colombia, a nation where very few blind people have the opportunity to obtain an education. As a small child I was told to sit down and be still; being blind meant that I could not play with other children. Doctors told my grandmother that as a blind person I really should not engage in much physical activity, and I certainly should not go to school. At that time my mother was living in the United States. When I called her and told her what the doctors said, she insisted that I be enrolled in school. Off to school I went, but the teachers protested that they had no idea how to teach a blind child. After only a month it was decided that I had to stay home after all.

In 1997, when I was seven years old, my mother returned to Colombia and arranged to take me back with her to the United States. As soon as we arrived in the U.S., my life changed for the better. At last I was able to go to school. I was so thirsty for education and knowledge that I loved every minute of it. Best of all, my mother did not accept the idea that since I was blind I needed to receive special treatment. Although she did not know any other parents of blind children, she set out to raise me as she would raise any other child.

By the time I reached high school I was a pretty normal girl, although I was a bit shy. I made friends and always did well academically. However, I still couldn't help feeling a bit uncomfortable with my blindness. After all, I was the only blind person I knew. Although my mother pushed me and set high standards, many other people thought that I had accomplished an incredible feat if I walked down an ordinary hallway.

Meeting Blind Mentors

Fortunately, I grew up in New Jersey. When I entered high school I was introduced to the LEAD program. LEAD is an acronym that stands for Leadership, Education, Advocacy, and Determination. Sponsored by the New Jersey Commission of the Blind, the LEAD program targets blind high school students from around the state. We met once a month and were mentored by blind adults on dressing for success, handling finances, and much more. Up to that point many of us did not know any other blind youth, much less successful blind adults. Interacting with our blind mentors, knowing that they had families and jobs, was essential in shaping our perceptions of ourselves.

Every spring, the LEAD program takes the students to visit the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. There I learned about the Rocket On! program, which is how I wound up launching a rocket when I was fifteen years old.

As I progressed through high school, I became much more involved in the NFB. I attended my first national convention the summer after my junior year. I like to learn by seeing concrete examples. It is one thing to know that there are theoretical blind people doing theoretical things out in the world. It is an entirely different thing to meet those people, talk to them, and ask them questions. National convention showed me that I wasn't the only blind person with dreams and aspirations, even though some people claimed that my goals were impossible to achieve.

College and Beyond

When the time came for me to apply to college, I was more than ready to take on the challenge. I decided to attend Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I was attracted to the nice weather, and the people I met were really nice, too. I love my college, and I've taken advantage of many of the opportunities Emory offers its students. Since the seventh grade, when I started studying French, I decided that I wanted to study abroad in Paris. When I  arrived at Emory, I immediately looked into study abroad options and decided to go to Paris in the summer. After I convinced everyone that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself in a foreign country, I jetted off to Paris in the summer of 2009.

I will never forget my first visit to Paris. Not only did I improve my language skills, but I also visited some of the most famous landmarks in the world. I ate delicious pastries, tasted some great wine, and visited real castles where royalty had lived. I even got to walk down the most expensive street in the world! I'm a slave to fashion, and getting to visit Chanel, Dior, Prada, and Ralph Lauren one after the other was pretty much a dream come true. Never mind that I couldn't afford anything--but hey, I can dream, right?

Last summer I had another great experience. The Emory Ethics Center has a summer internship program called the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program. Twenty-seven Emory students were chosen to work with nonprofit organizations in Atlanta. I was matched with the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center (AHRC). This community-based nonprofit served marginalized and minority communities. The goal of AHRC is to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases by providing various harm reduction services. While interning there I had the opportunity to perform many services. I distributed food, found rehab and detox treatment centers for those who were ready to take that step, taught groups about substance abuse and management, and helped with the needle exchange program. Our clients brought in dirty needles, on average four hundred a week, and received clean needles in return. Needle exchange is highly controversial, since many say that we are encouraging drug use by giving out needles. We disagree. We recognize that drug addicts will use drugs whether they have dirty needles or clean ones. The needle exchange program helps prevent them from getting and spreading HIV/AIDS in the process.

Working for the Atlanta Harm Reduction Center has been one of the most meaningful things I have ever done. Every person I met had a remarkable story, and no one expected less of me because I am blind.

Doing well in school has always been a priority for me. So far my studies have paid off, but I have learned the most outside the classroom. Being able to experience the world from the perspective of others has helped me understand the society we live in more fully. Meeting people from different walks of life has served as further motivation for me to pursue my goal of becoming a psychologist. I think it is essential for all of us to step outside our comfort zones and take a good look at what goes on outside our own social circles. By learning about others, by experiencing their milieu, by truly listening and trying to conceptualize the plight of others, we can gain further insight into our communities and ourselves. If we all strive for that understanding we can make a change in the world around us. If only in a small way, we can make the world into a more loving and accepting place.

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