Photo of Stephen Bugner
Stephen Bugner

NFB Scholarship Winner Educates the Press

From the Editor: The following article is reprinted from the May 19, 1998, edition of the Providence Journal. Steven Bugner was a 1995 NFB scholarship winner and is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Rhode Island. He has clearly taken to heart the importance of educating the public about the normality and competence of blind people. Here is the story:

With Guide Dog by His Side, Steve Bugner

Graduates Near the top of his PC Class

by Mark Patinkin

I met Steve Bugner only once, four years ago, but have wondered often how he is doing. He was left blind at age thirteen by a brain tumor; he was eighteen and a senior when we spent an afternoon at North Providence High. He was weighing colleges at the time; it would be his first time out in the world since this happened.

So occasionally I've wondered: did he make it?

A few weeks ago Providence College sent me a story idea:

Might I want to profile their top bachelor of science candidate? He had the highest grades of any business major and ranked seventh in a class of 809.

And one other detail. He was blind. His name was Stephen Bugner.

I met him for the second time Saturday, at his family's North Providence home. When he's not at his dorm, he lives there with his sister and parents. It's a small house just steps off Mineral Spring Avenue. The sound of the traffic is steady, but Steve doesn't mind; it helps him orient.

Four years ago he had a cane. Now he has a Belgian Shepherd named Milo. He spent a month in New Jersey training with him. Milo had been fitted for a cap and gold summa cum laude braids to match his master's, as he would accompany Steve on stage to get his diploma. In a way, Steve said, Milo had earned it; he was there through all of college.

The two were now due on campus for the baccalaureate, a pre-graduation service. On our way out the door, Steve's mom mentioned that her son still does much of what he'd done before. He fishes. He bowls. He plays Parcheesi with the family.

I asked if he has to approach such activities differently.

"If I say I got doubles," his mom told me, "he'll feel the dice to check me."

I stood with Steve on the PC campus. I asked how he and Milo navigate curbs and steps. "Like this," he said. I watched as Milo paused at curbs and top steps—but so briefly he rarely waited for the go signal. They both know Steve will feel him pause and read the signal.

But Steve also knows the campus in surprising ways. That building over there, he says...

"Which one?"

"Way over there. That's called Feinstein." He was right.

"And we'll head into the entrance to this building on your right."

We walked inside, and he asked if I was thirsty.

Thanks anyway; why do you ask?

"Because there should be some Coke machines on the left."

There they were.

We sat in one of his classrooms to talk.

Does he have low moments about what's happened? Anger?

No, that's not how he thinks. I remembered that attitude from last time and asked how he got such perspective on this.

"Before I wend blind, I never went to church. I didn't have a relationship with God." Now that he does, he's got more purpose and focus. Like serving God and valuing his family. He focuses not on what he's lost, but on how lucky he is that so many folks at school have been there for him.

I asked about his choice of majors. I could understand English or history, but business finance? Isn't it hard to do complex formulas if you can't look at the numbers? What about business statements? Spreadsheets?

He said it does take him longer.

What about tests?

That takes focus, he said, but he has an aide to read the questions, like a recent one where he had to do a quarterly income statement.

He was able to do that in his head?

"It's simple," said Steve. "You take the total sales minus costs of goods sold, minus operating expenses, which are chiefly selling and administration expenses; then you get income before taxes, so you subtract the taxes you owe, and the interest you owe if you have debt."

Then he described the way he mentally computes the price of a bond, but I lost him when he got to something about par value and the nth power.

We headed back outside.

"The building on our left is Aquinas," said Steve. "The dorm over there—can you see it?

"That one far away?"

"Yes, a good 100 yards. That's my dorm, McDermott Hall."

He said the baccalaureate ceremony was the other way, just as far, at the Peterson Center, and he pointed precisely at it.

The graduates were lining up outside the building. Steve and Milo were directed toward the front with the class leaders.

As we stood, I asked him how he's able to bowl. He can tell from the sound whether he's gotten a lot of pins, he said, or only a few. It's particularly easy to tell a gutter ball. He smiled. He's had a chance to hear that sound a lot.

Before he lost his sight, he played basketball and today follows most Providence College games. The radio play-by-play, he said, is as good as a front-row seat.

He hopes to go into money management. He thinks it would be a contribution to help families and companies handle their investments.

I asked how all that he's been through has shaped his approach to the field.

For someone like himself, he said—twenty-two and no family-

-he'd take an aggressive investment strategy, though for older folks with families...

I stopped him and explained that wasn't how I meant it. I meant his blindness. How has that steered his philosophy?

He'd never thought of it that way.

How couldn't he?

You don't go into a job thinking as a blind person, Steve said; you think the same as everyone would, as a professional.

Okay then, how has his blindness changed his approach to life in general?

Oh, he has to have different kinds of equipment, like a Braille writer and a talking computer, and...

I mean your attitude, I said. I thought he wasn't getting my question.

He smiled in a way that said he had understood all along. He was making a point. There are technical adjustments but not philosophical ones.

"It's not `What can I do in life?'" he said. "It's `What do I want to do?'"

For example, he decided education is important, so he set a goal of high grades.

I pointed out that a 3.94 average is beyond that. Clearly he has a gift.

He said he doesn't; he just studied a lot. And never quit until he truly understood the material.

It's that simple, he said: you set a goal and a standard and stick to both.

The ceremony was about to begin. Quickly I asked Steve his plans. He's applied for jobs with Fleet Bank and Fidelity Insurance. He's waiting to hear whether he'll get interviews.

I hope he won't take this the wrong way, but I doubt I'll spend much time wondering how he's doing. I think I know.