Growing in the Federation through Scholarship and Mentorship 

Scholarship Class Photo of 30 diverse blind students in three rows, Colin is in the first row on the left

Growing in the Federation through Scholarship and Mentorship 

by Colin Wong

My first experience with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was not through the 2022 national scholarship; it started exactly 10 years earlier at my first National Convention in Dallas, Texas. I was a high school student, who became blind months prior, attending the Summer Transition and Employment Program with the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) to learn non-visual skills. During this convention I spent most of my free time hiding in my hotel room, but as I saw the confident and competent 2,000+ blind people thriving and not just surviving, I yearned for that freedom I did not know was possible for me.

I remember two experiences from that convention. First, I was required to locate the Presidential Suite and have a conversation with the president, Dr. Marc Maurer. I was reluctant and skeptical that a leader of a 50,000+ member organization would have the time or care to talk to me. My preconceptions were quickly disproven as I was able to have a conversation without feeling rushed, less than, or out of place. I realized that if an influential leader could see the potential in each blind person within their organization, then I need to recognize that in myself as well. The second experience was the scholarship presentation. As a high school student and a blind person I was terrified at the notion of attending college; I felt as though it may have been impossible.

This belief was shattered with each scholarship winner that was announced. Each name and educational pursuit that was announced was a living representation that success as a blind person was obtainable and college was not a wishful dream, but a tangible reality.

I am blessed to be part of the 2022 National Federation of the Blind scholarship class and subsequently chosen to be the recipient of the Kenneth Jernigan Memorial Scholarship. Former NFB President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan said that “We are achieving freedom and independence in the only way that really counts—in rising self-respect, growing self-confidence, and the will and the ability to make choices.” The NFB has provided this gift, understanding, and philosophy within me. The Federation taught me the true meaning of high expectations, provided me courage to pursue my dreams, and gave me the confidence in recognizing the true value in what I had to offer.

In 2022, each scholarship winner was awarded with $8,000, technology, and a trip to the NFB National Convention. Each part of this scholarship is invaluable to my educational pursuit in obtaining a PhD through the University of North Dakota in Teaching and Leadership. The financial contribution is significant and measurable, but the knowledge, mentorship, and belonging is an impactful experience that is much harder to measure and define.

President Mark Riccobono shared that his first words to guests of the Jernigan Institute, the NFB Headquarters in Baltimore, are, “Welcome home.” To me home is a place of love, support, and belonging. From my first experiences in 2012 to the mentors that I have developed through the scholarship program, I have felt at home. When Cayte Mendez, the Chair of the scholarship committee, announced the mentors and the members of the scholarship committee, it was evident the amount of knowledge that was being offered. There were blind, successful professionals who have worked for the Department of Education, Vocational Rehabilitation, NFB training centers and in professions including computer programmers, directors, writers, lawyers, and so much more. This paralleled my first convention, where members demonstrated through actions that they cared about my future.

The difficult truth is, having a dream is the easy part. Changing the dream into reality is the hard part. Throughout my journey I have had doubts and insecurities about my capabilities, and whether I could successfully pursue my doctorate. This is important to mention as we often see successful people, but not the challenges they may internally or externally face. I’ve had questions specific to blindness such as how does one deal with the accessibility of certain statistical software or how has one managed the challenges in academia as a blind person? These experiences are those that my cohort and professors are unfamiliar with but have been answered by so many trailblazers that exist in the Federation, who I have been able to call mentors and friends.

My life has changed significantly since my first convention. In that time I graduated with a bachelor’s from San Francisco State University, a master’s from Louisiana Tech University, a graduate certificate from Texas State University, and a National Orientation and Mobility Certification from the National Blindness Professional Certification Board. I have been honored to serve as a member and in various leadership roles in the NFB in Louisiana, Arizona, Washington, and even as the National Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee co-chair. I’ve worked as an O&M instructor and as a program manager for Saavi Services for the Blind. My journey has been inexplicably tied with the National Federation of the Blind, not only because of my profession and academic interests, but because of the dedication of the Federationists who have sacrificed their time, knowledge, and experience for me.

My advice to future scholarship applicants is to take full advantage of all that the NFB convention has to offer including Networking, mentoring, and learning. Applying for this prestigious scholarship is challenging but worth it. Applicants come from various backgrounds including those who have never heard of the NFB before. If one does not get selected for one year; do not be discouraged and apply again. In addition, after the scholarship, I recommend one to participate actively in their local chapter and state affiliate. I have found my home in the National Federation of the Blind due to all the support, love, and understanding that has been provided to me. The support system that one builds through the NFB can last a lifetime and beyond one’s educational pursuits.