Coming Full Circle: Investing in Myself and Our Community with Mentors, Training, and Scholarships
By Syed Mahmud Rizvi
I was born blind—I have Stargardt Disease—but I did not recognize that I was blind until I was nineteen. This was when I was first exposed to Federation philosophy, which helped me learn nonvisual techniques and taught me how to not be ashamed of my vision loss.
At that time, my family and well-intentioned relatives would send me all kinds of media about blind people climbing Mount Everest, becoming engineers, and generally being incredibly successful. I found this annoying. I felt that achieving such great things was not possible for me as somebody who could not see. I felt dumb and incapable, like there was something innately wrong with me, that successful blind people were just innately more capable than I am. So when Derek Manners, a successful blind law school student from Massachusetts called me, I expressed that. I felt like connecting with somebody successful was unrealistic, since I wouldn’t achieve those things like they talked about in the media.
Derek offered me a bus ticket and the chance to visit him in Boston. I wasn’t involved with the Massachusetts affiliate in any way at the time. He gave me a tour of Harvard Law School, which was a crazy experience. I vividly remember running my hand along the desk thinking ‘Wow, President Obama studied here.’ I expressed to Derek that I would never be capable of that. He said that with some proper training and guidance from blind mentors, I could definitely end up in a place like Harvard. I thought that he was selling me a pipe dream.
Derek invited me to attend the Massachusetts state convention. I got a state scholarship at that time for undergraduate school. Coming to the state convention was an incredible experience. I met lots of incredibly successful blind people. Then, he convinced me to come to National Convention, which was my first time flying independently. I met very successful blind professionals, and blind people who hadn’t achieved what they originally intended to. Both groups recommended that I get structured discovery training at one of our affiliated training centers.
I met someone from Massachusetts who had the same eye condition as me, who had the same major, and who was super depressed. He said that he had never gotten training, that he didn’t approach life in the correct manner, that because of his degenerating vision, he couldn’t do his job anymore. He didn’t feel like he could function as a result. I wondered what I could do to be nothing like that guy. I felt like I was running toward a cliff on borrowed time.
Later that fall, I went to the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). That sealed the deal with my involvement with the Federation. As I gained more and more from the federation, I wanted to get more involved. I volunteered with the National Association of Blind Students (NABS), participated in Washington Seminar, and went to Massachusetts state conventions. With the help of my mentors, Derek Manners and my affiliate president Amy Ruell, and so many others, I transferred to University of Texas Austin after graduating from LCB. Thanks to my newfound blindness skills and a national scholarship, I did incredibly well in undergrad—better than I had ever done academically.
Then, I got into Harvard Law School. I got the news while I was at Washington Seminar, getting ready for our first round of meetings. My involvement with NFB took me full circle. I started studying where former President Obama had, something that just a few years before I felt myself incapable of doing. State and national scholarships supported my undergraduate studies, provided me with mentors, and hugely expanded my professional network. Now, another national scholarship supports my graduate studies at Harvard.
President Riccobono called me about serving on the national scholarship committee—a huge honor. It felt like I came full circle again. I went from taking scholarships from the Federation to reading national scholarship applications. I’m on the other side of the table now. I’m helping the Federation give scholarships to students, supporting their pursuits by mentoring them, and helping them grow as blind adults. It's been one crazy heck of a ride.
I encourage anyone considering applying for a national scholarship to do so. When applying, write a good, strong essay. With your application, the interview with your affiliate president, and the powerful narrative about your life, the committee is trying to understand who you are. Anything that you believe that you can achieve on your own as a blind person, I guarantee that you can achieve far more with the Federation’s support.
There are so many blind people in the Federation who are willing to invest themselves in up-and-coming blind adults and students. It’s on those students to go out and get that investment. There’s nothing I love more than investing in blind students’ future. There are so many amazing tangible things that the Federation does, but you can’t really quantify the value of person-to-person connection. I think that’s why it’s so important that we’re a membership organization. As people who have an incredibly unique lived experience, that connection with one another is the most important thing that our organization has to offer.
About the Scholarship Program
The National Federation of the Blind’s annual national scholarship program offers thirty finalists financial awards, as well as an invaluable opportunity to gain mentorship from thousands of successful blind professionals at the National Federation of the Blind National Convention and beyond. Scholarship recipients have gone on to immensely successful careers in countless professions. If you’ve applied before, apply again. Syed Mahmud Rizvi received his first scholarship in 2016 and became a tenBroek Fellow in 2021. He is now in his third year at Harvard Law School. Apply for a national scholarship by March 31, 2024.