American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention 2021 AWARDS
Presented by Cayte Mendez
Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 8, August/September 2021
From the Editor: Each year the National Federation of the Blind awards thirty academic scholarships to blind students pursuing postsecondary education. Cayte Mendez chairs the NFB Scholarship Committee. At the annual board meeting of the NFB Board of Directors, Cayte Mendez presented this year's scholarship finalists.
Cayte Mendez: Good afternoon. It's one of the great privileges of my membership to introduce the scholarship finalists to the convention each year. The committee receives hundreds of applications every spring, and we have the honor and great responsibility to select our thirty finalists from this outstanding pool.
This year's class represents twenty-three states in all and the District of Columbia. They represent a wide range of backgrounds and academic fields, but they all have two attributes in common. First, they've demonstrated outstanding academic aptitude. Second, they've served and continue to serve in various communities as leaders and role models. Two of this year's class are tenBroek Fellows. They are Lizzy Muhammad-Park and Syed Rizvi. I'll explain what it means to be a tenBroek Fellow in more detail as I present the class.
Ordinarily these presentations would be live. But due to the vagaries and quirks of Zoom and the challenges of muting and unmuting thirty people, the decision was made to prerecord these remarks in advance of the board meeting just as we did last year. As a result of this, I already know what these folks are going to say, and I'm incredibly pleased to invite all of you to be as impressed as I am by the scholarship class of 2021.
Maryam Abdul Sattar, California, California, social work and advocacy: Hi, everyone. I am a passionate social worker who has a strong desire for an equitable society. My mission is to empower individuals to education, advocacy, and service. I have engaged in community service since high school. From educating refugees on available resources to serving as a student leader and mentor during the pandemic, I have had the pleasure to make a positive impact on the lives of different individuals. After getting my master's degree in social work, my plan is to pursue a career in law and serve as an advocate to become a voice for the oppressed. Thank you.
Christopher Abel, Georgia, Georgia, financial planner: This year I was chosen as the most positive athlete in wrestling in the state of Georgia and was described as "a high-character, team-oriented leader who has experienced winning and losing and has shown a heart for their school and their community." I have played with an elite jazz orchestra and was selected to compete against the world's Blitz Chess champion. My county recognized me for being a scholar athlete. I was a dual enrollment student at Kennesaw State University, where I will attend in the fall to pursue a degree in finance. My goal is to work for a Fortune 500 company and give back to my community. Thank you.
Kaleigh Brendle, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, disability rights attorney: I serve as the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Association of Blind Students. I'm the founder and director of the Sing for Serenity Choir, an international online choir for the blind composed of more than 120 members hailing from fifteen countries; and, as of a few hours ago, I'm officially a high school graduate headed to Villanova University. I discovered my desire to become a disability rights attorney last May while fighting the college board alongside the National Federation of the Blind to secure Braille for blind and deafblind AP test takers worldwide. Thank you so much to the NFB and the scholarship committee for this amazing honor.
Samantha Chase, Montana, Montana, behavioral health: Hi, everyone; thank you. Currently I'm working on finishing my degree after a very long ten-year break due to progressive vision loss and needing to learn how to be blind and to be successful at being blind. In the meantime, I had my two beautiful daughters, and after my little one went to kindergarten I decided that it was time for me to go back to school. Ironically enough that happened to be spring of 2020. We ended up all being back home, but we adapted, and we made it work. Currently I work at an independent living center as a peer advocate for individuals with disabilities. I mentor those who are blind and low vision, and I also participate in transition groups. That's where my passion is right now, and I'm pursuing my master's in this field. Thank you.
Tashara Cooper, Florida, Florida, modeling and simulation training and research: Akin to a line in Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken" I often take the "path less traveled by," and at times such paths often choose me. Beyond the academic and professional me, I believe it was my humanness heard through conversation that led to me being a finalist. I lead and co-lead various projects in the academic, professional, volunteer, and professional space. As a member directly and indirectly of multiple communities, I support a variety of nonprofit organizations and associations, secondary and postsecondary mentoring initiatives, and an employer's STEM outreach program. Following the completion of my master's in modeling and simulation, I plan to pursue an interdisciplinary doctoral degree. Thank you, Federation, for this opportunity.
Shannon Donahue, Washington, Washington, pediatric health counselor: Hello, my fellow Federationists. Our society responds to difference by reacting negatively. As a person with two visible disabilities, blindness and achondroplasia dwarfism, I'm acutely aware of this. As a result I have chosen to help those voices who are discounted so that they can reclaim their rightful place as equal members of society. My first step was to take control of my own destiny at transforming my disabilities from stumbling blocks into stepping stones. To do this, I gained proficiency with the blindness skills necessary to succeed in college and my future career. Now that I am a student at Seattle Central College studying in the bachelor's program of applied behavioral science, I have the opportunity to pay it forward. Using these hard-won skills at school, my future work, and within the NFB, I continue to advocate for accessibility. I plan to use this scholarship as a springboard for the next step of my journey into pediatric mental health. My professional goal is to guide and support young people with mental health issues who are struggling to obtain the power, freedom, and opportunities to which they are entitled. Today I want to thank my fellow Federationists for bestowing upon me this scholarship, the ultimate expression of your trust and confidence. Thank you very much.
Lizzie Dunn, Michigan, Michigan, social work: I have been a member of the NFB for many years and have participated in many events involving advocacy for people with disabilities, especially blind people. In 2012 I won the Braille Readers are Leaders Community Service Award and helped the NFB of Michigan protest at the capital in Lansing to overturn the governor's decision to abolish the Michigan Commission for the Blind. Since then, I've done many other volunteer experiences, community service work advocating for the positive representation of people with disabilities, and I plan to continue advocating for all people in helping people work toward well-being in their individual lives and in the world through my career as a social worker. Thank you.
Christina Ebersohl, Illinois, Colorado. Christina will be pursuing a career as a musician and music education advocate: I'm a classical violist, not to be confused with a violinist, and as I complete my master's in viola performance and begin auditions for my doctoral program this fall, I will have been the first blind music student at both my undergraduate and graduate institutions. Because of this unique challenge and experience in educating my schools in modern accommodations for musicians, I have developed an advocacy course for accessibility in music education and regularly lecture and teach my course to schools and performance institutions in the United States, Australia, and Canada so far. In addition to my active performance schedule and advocacy work, I'm a teaching artist for El Sistema of Colorado, which brings music lessons to underprivileged communities. I'm the first-ever visually-impaired ABME certified instructor, and I'm also the editor for the Journal of the American Viola Society. Thank you so much for this amazing honor.
Our next finalist is one of five finalists the first alphabetically—who has a birthday in February. Apparently if you wanted an NFB scholarship in 2021, having a birthday in February was a really good place to start. She also would like me to include in her introduction that she grew up in Kuwait and is currently living in New York. It's my privilege to introduce Maya El Cheikh, New York, New York. She is going into law and advocacy: I did not grow up in the United States. I grew up in a society that believes someone like me, a legally blind albino woman, is incapable of getting an education, a job, let alone going to law school. Despite graduating from high school without any accommodations and getting a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in special education, prospective employers refused to see past my physical appearance. So I sought asylum in the United States in 2014. During my short time here, I have done more than I ever thought I could. I interned at the dean's office as an advocate for the special victims crimes unit. In 2015 I volunteered at Human Rights First, an organization that provides pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers like myself. Because of that, my passion for the law grew. After a year I was hired and promoted within months. Despite general hesitancy by my superiors that nonlawyers should not represent clients, I became the first fully accredited representative amongst four of our offices, and from there, I represented about forty indigent asylum seekers before the United States Immigration Services office and immigration court. During the pandemic I advocated for my clients who were being unlawfully denied access to languages they understood, housing benefits, and employment. As an asylum seeker myself in the United States, I learned that, unlike in my country where there is no assistance to protect people like me who are oppressed, over here my goal is to go to law school, where I can be fully equipped to advocate as a lawyer and be an advocate for change. Thank you.
Lucien Gandarias, Washington, California, physics research: Growth is struggle. Growth is a willingness to sacrifice comfort for that which you desire to achieve. This is what my ten years being active in the Federation has taught me. It's impossible to reap the fruits of which you do not sow, and thus each day I strive to sow more than I did the last. I run cross-country to break down the artificial barriers set for me by others and to grow my strength and fortitude. I study physics to deepen my understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe. Growth is living the life you want. Thank you.
Joel Gomez, California, Indiana, industrial engineer: Good afternoon, board members. I'm honored to be here today. Throughout my life I've never let my visual impairment hold me back. In fact I've always tried to be an inspiration to others with disabilities or to people who are just having difficulty achieving their goals in general. Two days ago, I'm honored to say, I was nominated to the US Paralympic Team, and I'll be representing Team USA at the Tokyo Paralympics this summer. In the fall I'll be attending Purdue University to achieve my other dream of becoming an industrial engineer.
Maxine Gretchokoff, Mississippi, Mississippi, emergency services dispatcher: I'm a totally blind United States Air Force auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol officer and a suicide attempt survivor. Throughout my time at Tines Community College, I made the dean's list, I've been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, and I do not let my lack of sight prevent me from serving in uniform in some capacity to serve my local community, my state, and my nation.
The next finalist will actually be attending my alma mater in the fall, Cornell, so I'm pleased to introduce Manahil Jafri, New York, New York. She is going into public policy and disability rights advocacy: Hey, everyone. Disability discrimination has been one of the biggest issues that I view in today's society, and I really hope that I can help mitigate it through my work. Whether that be through helping increase resources for blind individuals in Latin America or helping amplify people with disability's voices through the New York City participatory budgeting process, I really want to show that people with disabilities are capable of doing more than what society holds for them. I want to say a huge thank you to the NFB for offering me this opportunity, as it really helps me fund my education at Cornell and helps me achieve my future goals.
This next applicant has a really fun birthday, and I always love to drop in tidbits about the class. I'm going to share this one with all of you; Peter Jansen, Michigan, Ohio, is going into biomedical engineering, and his birthday is Pi Day, March 14, 3-14. That's an awesome day: Hi, everyone. I received two bachelor's degrees from Michigan State University and was the project leader for 3D Printing of Accessible Media Center for people with disabilities. I also established the first blind soccer program at MSU. In the fall I will be attending Ohio State University to get my PhD in bioengineering with a specific interest in ocular tissues. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
Jeanette Jones, California, California, child and family therapist: Hello. I currently serve as the Parents of Blind Children president for the state of California, as well as serving as vice president for my local chapter. I also have a blind son, and I'm passionate about education and children getting the services and supports they need through the IEP process. This is an area I spend a lot of my time advocating for. I'm also pursuing a degree in child family therapy to become a therapist working with children and adults with disabilities to overcome trauma. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Adi Lemmon, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania. Adi will be pursuing a career as an elementary teacher: Hello. Throughout my high school career, I dedicated myself to school work so I could keep my goal of graduating a year early. Even though I only attended three years of high school, I participated in many leadership roles and had many honors and awards such as being president of Aevidum, president of the National Honor Society, and won a community service award as well as served in many other organizations. I make sure I dedicate myself to volunteering within my home community and my blind community. I've developed many big goals in my future, such as changing the education system for all students. Bringing special education students into the mainstream classroom can be done. Teachers need to learn to accept all of their students. I hope to make a big difference in my classroom and to educate future teachers about these overlooked problems. Thank you for this opportunity.
Eric Mandell, California, California, physics researcher: I first came across the NFB over a year ago. I had decided to go back to school and get my degree in physics, so I was looking for other blind STEM students like myself. Growing up I had loved math and science, but the challenge of accessibility and just adapting to vision loss led me to get a degree in business instead. That's why last summer when I attended the NFB Science and Engineering Division meeting I was blown away by the number of other blind STEM students and professionals. So now I'm thrilled to be doing exactly what I want to be doing in joining my amazing cohort of fellow scholarship finalists. Thank you.
Haylee Mota, Rhode Island, California, mechanical engineering: Hello. I'd like to start by thanking the NFB for providing me with this opportunity. I've known I wanted to be an engineer since sixth grade, when I joined my first robotics team. Since then I have interned for an engineering professor and led a team in designing Habitat for Humanity houses. My goal is to someday work for an aerospace company while increasing access to STEM for blind and visually-impaired individuals. Thank you.
Lizzy Muhammad-Park, Maryland, District of Columbia. Lizzy will be pursuing a career as a Foreign Service officer, and before she gives her introduction, I just want to say that Lizzy is one of our two tenBroek Fellows this year. A tenBroek Fellow is someone who has won a previous National Federation of the Blind scholarship. The title of tenBroek comes from the name of the founding President of our movement, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. So being a tenBroek Fellow is an honor. It's my privilege to introduce Lizzy to you now: I was discouraged from learning Chinese as a blind student, but I took the classes anyway and then went to China as a blind teacher to sighted students. Now I will use those language and culture skills not only in my Johns Hopkins master's program but also with an internship with the United States State Department. Thank you to the scholarship committee and the entire Federation for giving me the tools, support, and opportunity to break barriers around the world.
Demetria Ober, Texas, Texas, social work and medical interpretation: I'm a social work major at Texas Women's University. During these times of uncertainty caused by the seemingly never-ending pandemic, I've had time to reflect on the goals and values that are most important to me. During this time I have found a passion for diversity and inclusion, and I have worked on advocacy work as the president of Pathways to Accessibility as well as joining the NFB of Texas Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I am honored to be a participant in this amazing opportunity, and I am looking forward to my future in a fulfilling and successful career as a social worker. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Treasa Marie Praino, New York, New York, policy and human rights advocacy: Hi, everyone. I'm a first-year PhD student at Syracuse University, where I'm focusing on critical disability studies in the global context. I'm also a recent Fulbright grantee to South Africa, where I worked in the capacity of disability unit access coordinator at Nelson Mandela University. My ultimate goals include advising government officials, NGOs, and international human rights organizations on implementing ability-based inclusion policies and strategies that reify social-model ideologies. I plan to conduct my work in regions experiencing unrest and economic hardships within the global south and more specifically within sub-Saharan Africa. I also aim to research the intersectionality between disability, poverty, violence, and war. Thank you.
Stephen Proski, Missouri, Massachusetts, artist and disability rights advocate: As a visually disabled person, art allows me to create and understand a world I'm unable to see. I am part of a normal, living framework that treats my disability as an obstacle rather than an asset to my identity. I've worked the past five years at a nonprofit art studio supporting artists with visual and mental disabilities. Working alongside these artists has shown me just how underrepresented disabled people are in the art world, and they are my motivation to reverse that trend. I am determined to continue advocating and creating a platform for all disabled artists throughout my career. Thank you.
Tina Reisner, Utah, Louisiana, cane travel instructor: We all know that building our personal community is essential to growth, opportunity, and success. Through this organization, I have been able to build my personal community through mentors who have taught me the philosophy of independence, freedom, and the power that I can live the life I want. Blindness is not what holds me back, which is why I am choosing to give back and help others build their personal community, by being an orientation and mobility instructor. I have gained my independence, and I hope to aid individuals in this empowering journey. Thank you for your belief in my future and the future of our nation's blind. Let's go build the Federation.
Our scholarship class of 2021 has thirteen graduate students, and one is this next finalist. Syed Rizvi, Massachusetts, Massachusetts. Syed is going into civil rights law: What does it mean to be named a tenBroek Fellow? Jacobus tenBroek, the founder of our movement, exemplified that education is the strongest foundation on which to advance civil rights. A titan in academia, his writings on the Fourteenth Amendment were used by Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board of Education. His work not only advanced disability rights but also race rights. This past year I founded the American Muslim Bar Association, now including over one hundred fearless minority leaders working to advance civil rights here in the United States. I hope Harvard Law School can be my foundation on which I can pursue and advance disability and civil rights with the support of the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you.
Megan Swanson, California, Utah, instructional designer: My field of instructional psychology and technology occurs at the intersection of education, psychology, and technology. I love this field so much because I get to work with subject matter experts in various areas, and it makes me feel a little bit less guilty about this "oo shiny" mentality when I get to learn something new. Over the last year I've been able to do projects in various areas like research, teaching, design, and development. It's been incredible, and I've also been able to serve on a couple of boards for different organizations. I just want to thank you for this opportunity and say that I will continue to do those things as I learn and grow over the next year or three, until graduation and beyond. Thank you.
Kinshuk Tella, Ohio, Ohio, environmental science: I have always been fascinated by the natural sciences from creating microecosystems to regulating air pollutants for one of the largest United States defense contractors. Those around me saw my blindness as a suppressor, a disadvantage to my success in STEM. I take this assumption not as reality but as a challenge, paving the path for future generations of diverse scientists. With the earth sciences being the least diverse amongst all fields of science, it is crucial that we have blind role models within it. This is why I dedicate my future work to the environmental issues we face today for the betterment of tomorrow. Thank you.
Sam Theoharis, New York, Rhode Island, civil rights law: Hello. I'm a first-year undergrad at Brown University, and I'm very passionate about social justice and civil rights. In middle and high school I founded and took part in many different clubs, working on local advocacy and education around many different topics regarding civil rights. Over the past year in the pandemic, I haven't yet been able to engage in my local community around these issues, but luckily I've been able to be on the policy team as an intern at the Cairo Center for Religious Rights and Social Justice. This organization is an anchor organization for the Poor People's Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival. Thank you.
Zachary Thibodeaux, Texas, Connecticut, public policy: Thank you, Ms. Mendez, and thank you to the NFB for giving me this opportunity. My accomplishments include speaking at Guide Dogs for the Blind Fundraisers, being recognized as a national Hispanic scholar, and as the first undergraduate at Yale to receive Braille textbooks, I helped pave the way for future blind Yale undergraduates. I want to eventually hold a high-ranking position in a national government because I want to show society that blind people can hold elected positions. Thank you.
Mirranda Williams, Georgia, Maryland, geriatric behavioral and mental health: 2004, 2015, and 2021 are years that emphasized scholastic milestones for my life. These major accomplishments are my cornerstones to what I consider to be my greatest success thus far. I am the first to receive a high school diploma, as well as higher education degrees within my family. This educational background has afforded me the opportunity, along with other life experiences, to recognize that I am a humanitarian, thus the ideal profession of social work. I enthusiastically took on the role as a change agent for my family, my communities, and my culture, and I plan to help others do the same who will reflect me after completing my master's in the advanced standing program in gerontology at Morgan State University in 2022.
Chantale Zuzi, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, diplomacy: I'm specifically attracted to the area of human rights with an interest in international relations. My personal experience led to my deep desire to become involved with human rights and justice. I myself was denied basic human rights. I was born an albino, and in my community albinos were viewed as outcasts and their bodies good only for sacrificial purposes. The only reason I survived was because my parents believed that I had a right to live. I would love to bring justice back in my country and around the world. I wish to acquire the skills and knowledge and training that will enable me to make a difference and a change in my home country and around the world. I was resettled to the United States in 2018 and wouldn't believe that today I will be here. I just completed high school and now am heading into college!
Cayte: Mr. President, this concludes the presentation of the 2021 scholarship finalists.
Mark Riccobono: Thank you, Cayte, and what an outstanding group of individuals. We appreciate the work of the committee, and congratulations to our finalists.
Following is a complete list of the 2021 scholarship finalists and the awards they received:
$3,000 NFB Scholarships (17): Maryam Abdul Sattar, Samantha Chase, Lizzie Dunn, Shannon Donahue, Maya El Cheikh, Joel Gomez, Manahil Jafri, Peter Jansen, Jeanette Jones, Adi Lemmon, Haylee Mota, Stephen Proski, Megan Swanson, Sam Theoharis, Zachary Thibodeaux, Mirranda Williams, Chantale Zuzi
$3,000 E.U. and Gene Parker Scholarship: Christopher Abel
$3,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Scholarship: Lucien Gandarias
$3,000 Dr. Adrienne Asch Memorial Scholarship: Demetria Ober
$3,000 Charles and Betty Allen Scholarship: Tina Reisner
$5,000 Edith R. and Alvin J. Domroe Foundation Scholarship: Treasa Marie Praino
$5,000 NFB STEM Scholarship: Eric Mendell
$5,000 Mimi and Marvin Sandler Scholarship: Maxine Gretchokoff
$5,000 Pearson Scholarship: Christina Ebersohl
$7,000 JAWS for Windows Scholarship: Kaleigh Brendle
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in a STEM Field: Kinshuk Tella
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in Computer Science: Tashara Cooper
$10,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Memorial Scholarship: Syed Rizvi
$12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship: Lizzy Muhammad-Park
As the winner of the $12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship, Lizzy Muhammad-Park was invited to address the banquet. Following are her remarks.
Lizzy Muhammad-Park: Thank you, Madam Chair.
Hello, my Federation family. This honor represents your belief in me as a Federation leader and as a future successful blind professional. I would like to give a huge thank-you to the scholarship committee; to the National Federation of the Blind as a whole; to Dr. Ray Kurzweil; to my husband; to my parents, especially my mom; and to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I heard a quote earlier this week which said, "Don't worry about how you can get out of a situation, but instead think of why you were put in it." With that, I need to share a little story with you.
After four surgeries, a five-year-old girl had a conversation with her mother that went something like this.
"I can't take it anymore."
"You have to, baby. You're strong."
"No, really, Mom, I can't do this again."
"Are you sure?" The mother wondered what her child's future might hold. "If you don't, you won't be able to see anymore."
"I don't really care about that. Can I still go to school?"
"Can I still play with my friends?"
"Can I still watch TV?"
"Yes," her mom said.
"Okay, then, I'm fine with it. As long as I don't have to get another surgery."
I was that little girl. And after this conversation, my mom told my family about our decision.
"You can't listen to a child! She doesn't know what it means to be blind!"
"Hmm, what did they know?”
"No," my mom said firmly. "If she's okay with it, then we're okay with it. You don't know. She might be part of a change for blind people. I believe that she was chosen for this. God has a plan for her life, so instead of praying for her sight, let's pray for His will to be done."
Since everyone doesn't have my mom on speed dial, I will leave you with this: What the world views as weakness can be used for strength. It is in this way that the least become the greatest. People may underestimate you, and they will doubt you. But don't let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are! Better yet, show them. You are not a victim of blindness. You were chosen for this. You are in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people, the members of the National Federation of the Blind showing people who we are—I've got to start that part again because it's like the best part. The members of the National Federation of the Blind: showing people who we are with everything we do since 1940; Live the life you want and build the Federation!
Thank you a million times over for awarding me this honor. I will do my best to make you proud.