Not Letting the Flood of Doubt Win

Marinela Ortiz in her cap and gown at her George Mason University graduation.

Not Letting the Flood of Doubt Win

by Marinela Ortiz

I woke up in Fairfax, Virginia, on a cold morning on December 14, 2023. I was walking across the stage again, this time to receive a degree higher than a bachelor's, which I had worked hard for over the past two years. My fiancé and I arrived after 12:30 to the arena in which the ceremony was going to be held. My main cheerleader, RJ, helped me don the green gown and the light blue hood to represent my degree program. He also gently placed a braided chord across my shoulders, and the exciting part was the cap with its green and gold tassel with song lyrics that echoed in my head and which I kept close to my heart through my studies. I also looked up to the clear blue sky and said to myself, "Are you watching, Mom?"

Blindness was the reason that some people told me that I could only get a bachelor's degree and nothing more. I believed those words that broke me down while I was at the University of Central Florida. I hoped to go into the counseling graduate program to become a blind services counselor myself. I also worked on a minor in exceptional education. Unfortunately, I was placed in my writing and rhetoric minor as a result of pressure from my school and rehabilitation counselor. I knew I had talent in the field in which I minored; it was something I was good at, but I found it hard to find a job and start a career. It took me three years to find a paying job even after changing my career goal to assistive technology. Before that job materialized, I got work experience doing volunteer teaching at a blind rehab center where I was a past student. Also I had to improve my student interaction skills by volunteering in my county's school district.

Once hired in 2018, I still felt like I was missing something and pursued a master's program. The University of Massachusetts Boston was my first choice, and I was able to get into the school on provisional status. The coursework focused more on visual impairments when it came to assistive technology rather than on the broader spectrum of technology for people with other disabilities. This school was oriented to teaching so one could get the CATIS (Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist) certification, its passage being part of the requirements in completing the program. It was not an easy program due to the way some items were visual, and some of the assignments caused me to question how they relate to assistive technology. Eventually, I was told to withdraw due to my grades slipping. My reading comprehension was also questioned during Zoom meetings I had with my professors. I felt so upset that I threw my functional visual assessment kit that I spent my hard work and money on across the room. I did call some people to tell them the news, and they were surprised that I had to leave a program I worked so hard to get into. One person who cheered me up was my mom, who told me that I would figure it out and get my master's. I let her words sink in and gave myself some time to heal before applying to another school.

George Mason University was my second choice if things didn't work out. I looked into their program and noticed they focused more on technology for other disabilities in addition to blindness. I applied in August and waited for the email to give me my status. Halloween weekend in 2021 was when I saw the acceptance telling me that I was a George Mason Patriot in their Assistive Technology Program. A condition of my admission was that I had to pass my first four classes with a B or above. I met that demand by studying hard and working on my assignments every week throughout my two years at the school.

What I didn't know is that with the victory came challenges. I had to move into a new place where my fiancé, roommate, and I would have to live together in a two-bedroom apartment. It got flooded out during a hurricane, so again we had to move. But the true and most significant challenge was losing a parent.

On February 9, 2023, I was at work after finishing up some schoolwork earlier in the morning. There I received a call from my dad telling me that my mom was in the hospital. She was battling COVID and was in a coma due to her other health complications. I was devastated. I felt even worse when she was taken off life support the next day. I felt like I was losing a part of myself when I recalled how much my mom was there for me when we found out about my blindness and was upset for me after every doctor's visit at Bascom Palmer in Miami. What would I do without her encouragement and affirming statements such as when she said I was stronger and braver than her? She said this after my giving her the news about being terminated at the University of Massachusetts. She said, "I know you can figure things out! You're strong."

In the end, I accomplished a major feat when going through my remaining semesters at George Mason University. I pushed away my doubts about myself and came out on top. Gaining new knowledge gave me a new outlook on possibilities for people who are disabled. This made me feel wonderful, feeling my heart pound as RJ and I went up the ramp leading to the stage. Hearing him counting down as we walked up was exhilarating. As we walked across, he and I stopped, and he lifted my arm into the air as a way to say, "Champion!" I had my pictures taken and headed back to our seats, where the remaining graduate program names were called from the College of Education and Human Development. The song that I had on my cap played in my ears as done by my all-time favorite band, Newfound Glory singing it. The line that resonated most was, "I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I'm meant to be; this is me!"