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VISIONS Paves The Way for Blind College Freshmen

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Source: Ears823

Moving on from high school to a four-year university can be a hard transition for anyone. Now imagine being blind or visually impaired and having to do the tasks of a typical incoming college freshman, tasks which gets the student ready for this new journey. Having to learn the ins and outs of a totally new campus, navigating through an unfamiliar city, engaging socially with the strangers around you to make friends, and so much more, but with minimal to no sight.

VISIONS, a nonprofit social service and rehabilitation agency that has based itself around the inclusion of all people since 1926 and that provides its services free of charge, will be holding its annual pre-college program for the legally blind. This summer living and studying program held by the agency’s Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired group located in New York City will take place on Manhattanville College’s campus in Westchester County, New York. The one month long experience is meant to aid students with key skills that would help them adjust to college life more efficiently due to their disability.

VISIONS, a nonprofit social service and rehabilitation agency, offers services for the blind and visually impaired.

Source: Visions

Full of co-curricular activities, such as a festival, athletics, movies, music, games, and off-campus outings, this program aims towards enhancing soon-to-be college students’ independent living, social, writing, research, and computer skills while also giving the students an idea of what to expect in the Fall by providing the enjoyable atmosphere of a real college campus.

This state-funded program, which has been around since 2013, has typically featured 25 legally blind students who were selected to enroll based on applications they sent in taking two noncredit courses in past years, along with the other activities and excursions.

The two courses are Introduction To College Life, which is taught by university faculty, and another class taught by the New York State Office of Children and Family Service’s Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, the group that awards the grant for this opportunity. For the students and their counselors, all expenses are covered by the program, too. That includes housing on the 100-acre campus, transportation costs, and three meals per day.

Sammi Damin, a junior studying public policy at New York University, who is also blind, will be entering his first summer as a counselor for VISIONS’ program this year. As a blind, third-year college student who left home for school and had to become acquainted to an open campus in the streets of New York City, a task that can be a major challenge for those with sight, Damin knows what it takes to set yourself up for independence and how important it is to get a head start on that before the real moment arrives.

“I know how anxious students in our position can be heading into college. Serving as a mentor to these bright high schoolers and ensuring that they’re ready for common things that might come as a struggle at first to those who are blind like finding their classrooms, getting food at the dining hall, doing laundry, and being sociable, is really important to me. But I do it because it’s even more important for them, for them to be able to handle these daily independent living skills when Mom and Dad who have been around them their whole lives aren’t there to help anymore,” said Damin, who himself attended similar programs as a teen, including New Jersey’s Leadership, Education, Advocacy, and Determination (LEAD) program.

“This is a part of life for everyone, blind or not. We’re no different, some of us just need to be trained for life differently.”

braille for the blind

Source: Eddau

“I want these students to be ready for what is coming. College is supposed to be a great time in one’s life, but there is going to be that unavoidable stress from academics and from making friends, on top of how their sight might make school a little unorthodox. Knowing that they make it the full four years and get that degree while having enjoyed their time and transitioned to taking care of themselves is what I want to see and be a part of,” Damin went on to say.

When asked what makes VISIONS and this program different, Damin, to conclude, said,

“Doing this work six days a week is going to be great for all of us involved. Searching for a job or internship as a person with a disability, especially one so easily identifiable like blindness, can be really hard because of stigma, but here’s a program in VISIONS that helps those of us on both sides, the student and the teacher, really paving a way for the visually impaired community.”

This summer’s program is set to start in early July, with counselors reporting for duty on July 3rd.

By: Mohamad Hashash

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Alicia White Leading Project Petals to Repair Communities

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Alicia White, CEO of Project Petals

Nonprofit organizations are driven by a social cause. They help families in need, repair communities, teach children new things, and give hope to those who need it most.

Alicia White, the founder and president of Project Petals, had all of this in mind when starting her nonprofit. She is an advocate for all those living in low-income and under-resourced communities. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but she has also worked with the United Nations and done grant work with domestic justice civil rights issues within her community.

BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview White regarding her history with Project Petals and moving forward with her program. 

1.) You started Project Petals with the vision to help low-income and under-resourced communities. Can you tell us a bit about what the process of starting up a new business was like? What were your struggles along the way? 

The process of starting my organization has been rewarding, and I learned so much through the process. My organization started out as a volunteer-led project in Queens, New York. It was important for me to form an organization to improve the environment, support communities and future leaders.

It was challenging starting my first environmental project, and I wanted to make it less difficult for anyone coming after me. Also, to help youth learn the leadership skills needed to make an impact in their communities.

Starting a new organization for me had its challenge, but I learned so much along the way. I had to essentially learn what it was to set up an organization in what felt like overnight. Through extensive research, I had to file paperwork,  create a website, the logo, the structure of the organization, and just typical start-up activities fell on my shoulders.

Like most black women founders, my biggest struggle was finding and securing funding. For example, in 2019, Black-led organizations received less than 4% of grants and funding. That percentage dwindles when you are a woman.

2.) COVID-19 has been challenging for many small businesses and has caused people within many communities to struggle to make ends meet. How have you seen this affect them and what has Project Petals been doing in response to this? 

COVID-19 has hit the communications that my organization works, extremely hard. My organization had to change from working on the ground with large amounts of volunteers to working remotely, with fewer volunteers on the ground.

Through all of this, we were still able to support our community leaders and neighborhoods with the tools and resources that they need to improve their environments. Like every other organization, we have to abide by COVID-19 safety restrictions and guidelines to keep everyone safe while still actively providing the services that are needed to make an impact.  

3.) Going forward with Project Petals, what do you envision with your company? Where do you see it going in terms of growth? 

I see Project Petals eventually moving to a national scale. The need for environmental support and community development is needed now more than ever. With the climate crises on the brink of causing further catastrophe, it is vital that Project Petals is able to serve as many communities and leaders as we can. 

4.) You have a program called, “Youth Builders Program.” Can you elaborate more on what it is and what sort of programs it offers? And how this program can be of help to those participating in it?

Our Project Petals Youth Builders Program helps young people gain the leadership skills they need to improve their communities and futures. Our program connects youth in grades 4-12 to engineering, architecture, urban planning, environmental science, tech, and design professionals who can offer mentorship, experience, internships, and inspiration through monthly workshops.

We work to catalyze the next generation of environmentalists, community leaders, and professionals in these fields. Our program inspires them to develop a passion for these fields, thus working to create a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable world. One hundred percent of all of the youth show great leadership potential. We believe by fostering this leadership and giving them access to a network of professionals; we will start to build more resilient communities. 

5.) Before Project Petals, what sort of jobs were you doing? What led you to want to become an entrepreneur and what advice do you have for anyone also planning to pursue entrepreneurship? 

Growing up, I always had ideas that I wanted to bring to reality, but as a young person, I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t think it was possible for me to do so. As an adult, social entrepreneurship gave me the opportunity to take my ideas and actually use them to make a positive impact in other people’s lives and the environment.

If I had to give any advice, it would be to have confidence in your ideas and in your skillset as you may face many obstacles, nay-sayers, and challenges along the way. Failure is par for the course and is a good lesson plan to succeed. 

We hope that by understanding Project Petals, White, and how entrepreneurs can shape the future of the community around them, we can then better understand how to make our community and the world around us a better place. Thank you to Project Petals and White for this opportunity and we hope this program thrives in the coming years! 

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Using Instagram Art to Promote Anti-Racism: Meet French Graphic Artist Aurélia Durand

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Portrait of author Aurélia Durand wearing a yellow shirt and laying next to some of her pieces of art.
Source: Aurélia Durand

Instagram artist, Aurélia Durand, has been using the platform to promote her anti-racism art. She has a website on which she sells posters, stickers, and cards that she has designed herself. Her art is focused on celebrating diversity and equal representation. Durand’s dream is to help form a united community and an inclusive future for everyone. BLENDtw had the opportunity to ask Durand a series of questions about her current work on Instagram, the book she illustrated, and her goals for the future. 

1. Who or what inspired you to start creating art? What keeps you motivated?

When I begin working on a new artistic creation, I listen to music to put myself in a zone where I feel good and am inspired to create a meaningful message. I find that music settles the mood and atmosphere around me. I create to stay positive, and staying positive is essential for my well being. I need to be creative; I am addicted to creativity; imagination, drawing, and seeing the idea evolve is exciting. The most fulfilling feeling is to see people interacting with my work.

2. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? What advice would you give to young black women with dreams similar to your own?

Create for yourself; don’t try to make the same as everyone else. Find your voice; follow your instinct.

3. What impact do you hope your art will have on our world today?

I hope my art empowers people and makes them smile. 

A piece of Aurélia Durand's art work featuring four people behind a pink background with the title
Source: Aurélia Durand

4. In what way does art communicate with and reach people better than other means do? 

It’s upon us; it happens because of many factors. I think that visuals are more impactful than words. It is universal, we see it, and we quickly react to it. 

6. You just recently illustrated a New York Times bestseller, “This Book is Anti-Racist.” What inspired this project? What do you hope readers take away from it?

I hope readers want to take action for antiracism in there every day life after they read the book.

My publisher, Quarto, contacted me at the end of 2018 to participate in the book’s conception as the leading illustrator. I have never met the author; unfortunately, due to the current global pandemic and social distancing regulations. 

The book, “This Book is Anti-Racist” was released in January 2020 and became a best seller in June after the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally. We sold more than 150,000 copies! The book has been popular in schools, but people of all ages are reading the book. It includes about 20 exercises for readers to do while thinking about how they can take action to build a more inclusive society. 

7. Do you have any plans or projects you are working on? How can people help support your cause?

I am working on many new projects, but I can’t talk about them as they are meant to be a surprise. In October, I will be participating in several talks with Adobe, Ladies and Wine, and the AOI association. The projects are very exciting and I have confidence that they will have great success when they are completed. 

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Meet Steve Schwartz: Coaching Students Through LSAT Unplugged

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LSAT Unplugged coach Steve Schwartz with buzzed hair, glasses, a mustache and a beard  wearing a red and white striped shirt standing in front of the camera.
Source:

None of us are strangers to the barriers that standardized testing poses to students. Most of us have gone through exams such as the SAT, ACT, or SAT II exams, which are notorious for being inherently abstruse to students without test preparation programs and similar resources.

Beyond these college entry exams, which some schools have made optional due to these reasons, there are also graduate school entry-level exams. Like the SAT and ACT, exams like the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT serve as gatekeepers to graduate school for many students for several reasons, ranging from financial difficulties to no access to preparation materials.

According to a study by Harvard scholars, the LSAT was linked to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers. 

Even so, individuals are working to alleviate these barriers; Steve Schwartz, one of these remarkable individuals, is making his LSAT preparation materials more accessible to all demographics through his blog and YouTube channel. BLENDtw had the pleasure of interviewing Steve about his journey to becoming an LSAT coach. 

In your blog, you mentioned that a lot of other LSAT coaches tend to be geniuses that didn’t have to study for the LSAT for a good score. But, you worked extremely hard for your impressive score, and you can help others accomplish the same for themselves. How do you adhere to your promise to make LSAT prep and impressive scores accessible to all?

Well, it’s really about getting into the student’s mindset and seeing the questions from their point of view. Going back in time to when I was prepping, I would feel dumb sometimes; I wouldn’t always get it the first time, the second time, or even the third time. So, it’s really about adjusting to the way they think about it and getting them to understand it using their way or their approach. 

In 2019, there was a study published that linked the LSAT to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers. How are you working to alleviate this marginalization?

So first off, aside from my courses, I release 98% of my information for free via the YouTube channel, Facebook group, and Instagram. So 98% of my information is free, that’s a lot of information. That being said, I also have scholarship programs for my class.

Earlier this year, I ran a special interest scholarship, where all you had to do was submit a short video, really anything you want. I got over 100 submissions. I was initially going to give 10 students access to top tier courses for three months, but I got so many good submissions that I accepted 30 students for free.

Going forward, I have several scholarships I am running, through which you can get 50% off the classes if you have a fee waiver, are active or former military, and if you’re committed to practicing law in the public sector, you can get an additional 10% off. I am doing my part and always looking for more ways to make my materials more accessible. 

How do you believe standardized testing gauges one’s abilities? What is your opinion on the belief that assessments like the LSAT are barriers to achieving one’s dreams? 

I think standardized tests play an important role, but they’re also overemphasized in the admissions process. They have some validity, and they’re a better objective method than GPAs are because of grade inflation and variations among different kinds of programs; one standardized test plays a role in leveling that field.

But, at the same time, people can afford prep while others can’t. That creates barriers because some people have certain backgrounds that make it so that they can perform better in these exams. So, I wish that these exams didn’t have as much importance as they do. But, I still think they play a role. People should always be looking to make these exams better and more equitable. 

You mentioned in your blog that you became an LSAT coach upon obsessing over it, achieving an impressive score, and wanting to help others to do the same. How did you reconcile your dreams of becoming a lawyer with your desire to help others surpass the “roadblock” the LSAT poses on the journey to law school?

First off, once I took this exam and became obsessed, my natural process of studying it naturally forced me to help others. So, since I was a political science major as a pre-law student, I had friends who were also looking to take the LSAT; it just felt natural to help them. I kind of fell into teaching the exam in that way.

At the same time, I was working on my law school application and personal statement, and that really is a journey to self-discovery, and you wonder why you want to go to law school and what you are doing here.

Through that, I realized I didn’t want to go to law school; all the things I loved about it was an idea I had created for myself. But, I loved teaching the LSAT, so I decided that it was really for me.

I discovered this by writing a personal statement. I started my blog a few years later, and it just took up from there along with the YouTube channel.

And from here, we really are just looking to expand mediums to get as much information out there for people to have. 

What advice would you offer a college student on a predetermined path, like pre-law or pre-med, about not reaching a traditional endpoint?

I would say to talk to some people doing what it is that you want to do. I would say to do some exploration and talk to people in the field and ask them what they do. Maybe you can shadow them so you can understand what it is that goes on so you can get a clear idea and not just something you make up in your head. Talk to the professionals in the field and get their advice. 

What is the most memorable or impactful coaching experience you have had thus far?

There are so many, it’s hard to think of just one. I have a lot of online coaching sessions; I even release them on YouTube where students get those flashes of insight. And whenever that happens, that’s really powerful. And, of course, due to COVID, there are more online classes. I play with different formats and the most interesting is group coaching.

In this format, the students support each other and present information to one another. It is an extremely powerful moment when students begin to support each other. It’s empowering to have someone learn by teaching others. I have learned a lot from teaching, but those moments where one student supports another and grow through that process, I think that’s the most powerful thing I have experienced. 

Steve’s commitment to making his classes accessible and his passion for teaching shines bright. He is making a monumental difference in his students’ lives and he is providing accessible courses in an attempt to eliminate the unfair barriers that standardized exams pose for students.

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