Braille Monitor                  January 2022

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Getting the Straight Scoop from Our Mentees

by Maurice Peret

Maurice PeretFrom the Editor: Maurice is in charge of our mentoring program, so those who have seen his articles about language, politics, and economic systems are in for a different kind of treat. This article reveals the perspective of mentors as they describe the value of our program. Here is what Maurice has compiled:

By now, Monitor readers will have heard about the National Federation of the Blind’s Career Mentoring Program. If I assume too much then perhaps as a review you can read more about it on our website at https://nfb.org/programs-services/career-mentoring.

As I look back on the couple of articles I contributed on it in past issues, however, I must admit that they sound rather dry. It strikes me that the best spokespersons for our program are the mentees themselves. Let me step back, then, and let them tell their own stories:

“My name is Julia Holdcroft, and I am a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where I am double majoring in journalism and English. I have been part of the NFB Career Mentoring Program since November 2019 when I was a junior in high school.” Julia has been a lifelong Braille user and an aspiring novelist. She likes science fiction and horror. Julia also enjoys painting with acrylics. She currently works for the Love Library Information desk on campus, checking books out for people and providing general information and direction. When asked how she landed this work-study opportunity, Julia said, “I noticed a flier, and I went for it.” She mentioned that she did not choose to disclose her visual impairment on her application. Her academic advisor is also visually impaired.

Julia participated in two prior in-person NFB Career Quest retreats supported by the Nebraska Commission for the Blind & Visually Impaired and especially remembers working on her elevator pitch and participating in a work-based experience at a property management facility in Omaha. “I think the mentoring program gave me an opportunity to really gain a deeper understanding of what an informational interview entails and how it can be useful as a job exploration tool,” she said. In describing her participation in a popular discussion about setting SMART goals in school and the workplace, Julia explained that she really enjoyed being able to have a guideline by which to make goals without them becoming too vague or too much to handle at one time. In reference to another virtual session on volunteering and giving back, Julia explained that she had been able to gain a lot of support from her entire community, which instilled in her a strong sense of needing to give back. Julia further stated, “It also provided me options that I had never before considered.” Julia acknowledged contributions she was able to provide her peers. As an example, she discussed scholarship opportunities since she had been through this rigorous process before. In reference to another of these virtual modules, “I hope my contributions helped other people better understand how to succeed in standardized testing. I enjoyed being able to help others,” Julia said. “The NFB Career Mentoring Program,” Julia stated, “provided me with lots of information that I am almost sure I would not have had otherwise and probably to which most of my peers did not have access.”

In her overall assessment of the NFB Career Mentoring Program, Julia said, “I would definitely recommend this program because you will not find a program quite like it anywhere else to serve people who are blind or have low vision.”

“My name is Maxine Gretchokoff, though some might know me as Michael. I am twenty years old, and I am from Ridgland, Mississippi. I have been a part of the NFB's Career Mentoring Program since 2019. Currently I am enrolled at Hinds Community College pursuing degrees in criminal justice, law, and music. When I first started in the program many, many moons ago, I was a junior at the Mississippi School for the Blind, freshly blind with total loss of vision, and uneducated about what I could truly do as a blind individual. Today I am a sophomore in college, a national scholarship winner, motivated with a plan for my life, and a staff officer in the US Air Force Auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol. I can confidently say without a doubt that I would not have been able to write that last sentence without the Career Mentoring Program.”

“Very obviously the scholarship opportunities module,” said Gretchokoff, “presented by Cricket X. Bidleman, Logan Stenzel, and Justin Salisbury, was pretty important. I would have never gained the knowledge and motivation to complete my application, nor would I have met amazing friends and mentors at the national convention if I did not attend that module and become a national scholarship winner. The self-advocacy module that included a recorded speech from Dr. Kenneth Jernigan entitled ‘The Nature of Independence’ was also really impactful in helping me not be so frustrated at myself for being blind. Independence is a difficult concept to truly embrace, and for a long time I hated myself for well, disabled. That speech helped me see clearly for the first time in a long time. The job search module presented by Pam Goodman was also nice since by that point I had built up so many life skills that I felt confident in speaking with her, learning from her, getting the most I could from the resources presented, and learning how to form professional relationships—not to mention I found out job searching is not as intimidating as it seems. I know for a fact I can compete against sighted peers with the knowledge learned from that module."

Maxine went on to explain that “The one in-person Career Quest weekend retreat that I participated in, back before COVID-19, is a really good memory for me. I was a little embarrassed about being so maladjusted to a setting outside a classroom. I was ashamed of fumbling my way through social interactions, such as something as simple as chatting with folks in a buffet line, and struggled being, well, a socially awkward, freshly blind person who did not have a shred of love for myself. I look back on it though, and I can see how much I have learned, matured, and grown as a responsible citizen. Existing as I do in a purely sighted world and functioning as a key staff officer in my squadron, if I’m not mistaken I serve as the only fully blind person in an air force auxiliary position in Mississippi. I enjoy chatting with any person regardless of ability, and I'm not afraid of buffet lines. I'm also not afraid to ask for help when needed or learn from my mistakes. I have confidence and independence because of putting myself out there with the help of the NFB Career Mentoring Program.”

Taiye Akanni is a twenty-year-old second-year student at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland. He joined the NFB Career Mentoring Program in August 2021, and soon thereafter he and his twin brother Kenny jumped in with both feet in a Career Quest Saturday Seminar at the NFB Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. In fact, this was the first in-person event held after a long COVID-19 imposed moratorium. During this day-long interactive event, ten mentees:

Taiye, who is of Yoruba heritage, one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, dreams of becoming a physical education teacher. “Just because I have a disability does not mean I cannot perform a job that is usually thought of as a visual job,” said Akanni. Taiye uses a white cane during the day for identification purposes and uses it at night when his vision is less functional.

“Sometimes people don’t think I’m looking at them when talking because of my visual condition,” Akanni said, “I just assure them that I am indeed looking at them.” He was greatly inspired by his PE teacher and goalball coach, Athletic Director Matt Mescall at the Maryland School for the Blind (MSB), where he attended since fifth grade. Taiye served as captain of several sports teams and played goalball in high school. He was impressed by Mescall’s patience in working with individual students to meet their personal objectives and facilitate problem-solving. Taiye learned about the NFB Career Mentoring Program from his friend, Qualik Ford, a graduate of MSB and a recent graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, one of the Federation’s Structured Discovery training centers. Ford also currently serves as president of the Maryland Association of Blind Students and is a Career Mentoring Program alumnus.

Among the virtual pre-employment transition sessions that he attended, Taiye expressed his appreciation for the detailed approach to navigating the online job application presentation by James Gagnier. In this learning module, he gained a better understanding about how to apply for a job online, create a job account, and became familiar with the specific documents and other information needed to complete a job application. Taiye also learned how to request and obtain professional recommendations and appropriate steps for following up after submitting a job application, as well as effective ways to highlight his talents during a job interview as aptly described by Amy Porterfield. Taiye found the session on self-advocacy in the workplace presented by Jedi Moerke to be most helpful in implementing effective strategies for requesting accommodations from an employer, becoming confident and comfortable enough with his disability to blend into the corporate culture and thrive in the work environment. He took away from another module on notetaking fundamentals presented by Nancy Coffman that notetaking methods vary almost as widely as the unique individuals who employ them. He also grew in his awareness of effective ways of taking control of his access to the print universe in school and at work using human readers.

In answer to the question about what he would say to young people thinking about the NFB Career Mentoring Program, Taiye’s advice to other students is to “shoot for your goals, and don’t let anybody stop you just because you have a disability. Your disability isn’t going to hold you back in anything you want to do. Although it will be challenging, there’s always ways around anything in life. Talk with a favorite teacher or faculty member. Although I had a direction in mind for my future, I found that many high school seniors did not seem to know what their next steps would be. It is important to realize that there will not be anyone out there to hold your hand.”

“My name is Tasabih Elfaki, but I am mostly known as Abbu. I am a seventeen-year-old senior at Sycamore High School in Sycamore, Illinois, and I have been part of the NFB Career Mentoring Program since July 2021. I am originally from Khartoum, Sudan. When I lost my vision as a young child living in Saudi Arabia, where my family relocated and where I felt my disability was neither welcome nor accommodated, I developed a keen understanding of the importance of advocating for myself in every part of my life. Thanks to my mom, I grew up learning that I should never allow people to set limits for me.” Tasabih learned Arabic Braille while living abroad and has since mastered Unified English Braille and uses it all the time. “The module Self-Advocacy in the Workplace, presented by Jedi Moerke, really struck a chord with me and equipped me with various strategies to effectively advocate for accommodations during the job search process, during the actual job interview, and on the job itself. I also learned strategies to advocate for promotion and how to look for other advancement opportunities.” Tasabih explained that the session on Getting the Most Out of Your Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in High School “gave me a newfound confidence in being able to walk into that meeting with a sense of empowerment to advocate for what I knew I needed, rather than simply listening and accepting without question what the team proposed for me.”

“When I joined the NFB Career Mentoring Program in the summer leading into my high school senior year, I was looking for programs and experiences that would give me the knowledge and confidence to approach my future goals and dreams. I always try to involve myself in experiences and programs that would help me get out of my comfort zone and be the person I hope to become. As a way of expanding my horizons of new experiences, I went downhill skiing, joined my school track and field team, and became a club president.” During a discussion about setting Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely (SMART) Goals in School and in the Workplace, Tasabih described how she used this simple formula to successfully campaign and ultimately become elected as senior class vice president. “Without a doubt the NFB Mentoring Program was one of those experiences that affected my life in a beautiful way,” Tasabih said.

The NFB Career Mentoring Program is an important and powerful component of our Blindness Initiatives Department Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) because we recognize that unemployment and underemployment is among the most stubborn obstacles to achieving social equality, equity of opportunity, and financial security for those of us who are blind or have low vision. Leaders of our organization have placed a premium priority on developing programs and strategies to empower blind people to become equipped with the tools to compete in the job market. In an ever-evolving labor environment, we must be more innovative and creative in implementing these strategies. The young blind and low-vision individuals we have met in this article represent and exemplify a generation better prepared than their predecessors to take on the considerable challenges they face. By being provided with a vast network of positive blind adult role models, they will be able to leverage their gifts and talents to compete equally with their non-blind peers.

If you are a student between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two in Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, or Nebraska, talk with your state vocational rehabilitation counselor about becoming a mentee in the NFB Career Mentoring Program. Complete our online mentee application at https://nfb.org/menteeapplication.

You don’t have to take my word for it; consider the stories of the young women and men who have benefited from connecting with other blind and low vision people. For more information about the NFB Career Mentoring Program, contact Maurice Peret, coordinator of Career Mentoring & Employment Programs, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, at 410-659-9314, extension 2350, or [email protected].

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