Building Our Organization through Mentoring

Building Our Organization through Mentoring

By Bryce J Samuelson

(Editor’s Note:  Bryce is a member of the NFB of Minnesota Board of Directors and president of our Rochester chapter.)

When I was growing up in rural Minnesota, the only successful professional blind person was my Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB) counselor, Jan Bailey.  Though I knew I wanted to grow up and be successful, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher or rehabilitation counselor.  I knew a general path — or at least a potential occupation — for me would have to be around technology and computers, although I didn’t know anyone who was blind and successful in that area.  Of course, I’d used or at least heard of JAWS, ZoomText, Window-Eyes and other assistive technology and was about two years or so from getting my first Braille ‘n’ Speak.  I started using MS-DOS and an Apple® 2GS and Apple® 2e at about the ripe old age of four or five at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind’s (MSAB) Summer School program.

Growing up as the only blind student in my district, I felt very lonely — not even realizing my visual limitation until I reached kindergarten.  The drive that took me through high school and eventually college began with an experience I had at that young age.  I came home from school one day and told my mom that I was mad.  She asked me why and I said, “Because I can’t see the chalkboard and the other students can.”  It was my first realization that I was blind, though at that time, I didn’t call myself blind.  I called myself either “legally blind,” “low vision” or “visually impaired.”  Instead of giving up, I became determined to work harder and to graduate with my classmates, disability or not.  I struggled with having a paraprofessional sitting beside me in school, every day all day, and I never was able to form any real friendships with my classmates.

The only salvation I found was in summer school at MSAB.  I began attending at the age of three and what fun I had in those brief times.  At summer school in 1994, I really hit it off with one of my fellow students and we quickly became best friends.  Until then, I hadn’t had someone who I could call a best friend.  For three of the four years I went to MSAB, my best friend was there.  I was always eager to go back on Sunday night to see my best friend and go into the Gopher’s Burrow to play air hockey or to one of our rooms to listen to music.

As a junior in high school, I returned to my home and attended public school because I knew I would need to survive in a sighted world, though it was not easy to leave my friends and safe surroundings behind.  In the Spring of 2000, I graduated from high school on time with my classmates just as I had resolved to do early in my educational experience, even taking a Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) course.  I later went on to finish my Associates degree at Riverland Community College and a certificate in Web design.  Web design was, and still is, my love and I wanted that to be my profession. 

I job-hunted, interviewed, but couldn’t find anyone with the courage to give me a chance to show what I could do.  I even offered to work free, just being paid for a project at completion only if it had value to the employer and customer, but no takers.  I wish I had known someone with a visual limitation who was working and successful in the computer field.  I needed someone with whom I could verbalize my frustration, someone who had been there, walked that path before me, and lived through it. 

On my own, I resolved to search for a baccalaureate program.  I completed one year at Winona State University in Rochester.  It was during my last semester at WSU that I met with a Disability Services counselor at Rochester Community and Technical College who pointed me toward the University of Minnesota’s Department of Rhetoric’s Bachelor of Science in Scientific and Technical Communications, which I completed in December of 2006.

Knowing I needed more that an education to succeed in this world, in January, 2007 I started in the comprehensive program at our training center, Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions (BLIND) Incorporated in Minneapolis.  While there, I successfully completed three drop offs, a graduation walk, two meals and a four-page braille document.  The first drop off was pretty easy by the time I got to it as I had successfully completed more complicated routes that the travel instructor could give me.  I listened for traffic and obvious noises as I walked back to the bus stop.  When I got to the first busy street (which turned out to be Hennepin Avenue), I found the bus stop and when a bus came, I asked what number it was and he said that it was a six.  I knew right then where I was or what intersection I was at.  Now I was confident, I had a good education and independent living skills that would help me get a job and live on my own.  It was so reassuring to have the instructors and fellow students from the program to cheer me on.

A month after I left Minneapolis and arrived home, I started living in an apartment by myself.  One reason is that I would be closer to the Workforce Development Center in Rochester where I started working with a placement person in March of 2008.

By the end of the year, I was back at home living with my parents after 13 months of trials and challenges that go along with living on your own.  The experience was fine and exciting at first, but I soon found myself starting to stay at home longer before returning and dreading that return.  I had to face the challenge of learning and getting used to a woefully inferior bus system.  Living where I did was mostly fine because it was right downtown and had a store, a library, a church and other essentials close.  I imagine this has happened to other blind people, young people trying to establish themselves, but I had only my SSB counselor to talk to.  Although she was very helpful and supportive, I had no idea if it was realistic to believe I could succeed in the field of Web design.

In 2009, I continued seeing the placement person though I only got interview experience.  In September of 2009, I started an internship with the office of my local congressman.  I stayed at that internship until late May of 2010.  That position was a very helpful learning process.  I learned to handle a multiple line phone, deal with the public, and about the inevitable office politics.  My supervisor was very helpful and that gave me confidence.  Less than two months later, I started working at the Minnesota Low Vision Store in Rochester as the store manager.  That position wouldn’t have come along without my visual limitation, knowing something about some of the products I sell and knowing Jan Bailey.

In conclusion, my experience might have been less stressful had I had a peer group to share experiences with and a role model or mentor for guidance and support.  Our organization has an opportunity to become a resource for even more blind and visually impaired people of all ages.  Not only could this build our membership, but it would also provide the much needed role models and supportive, informal and sustaining relationships for the mentees who joined the program.  This would be beneficial to not only the mentors and mentees, but to the broader communities in which we live.  If the mentees would happen to join the chapters closest to where they lived, they would see more people and have the opportunity to build more connections, but also to be a part of a support group and have people they could talk to about things they may be going through.  For that reason, we should develop a mentorship program that is both informal and supportive to connect successful professionals in any industry or area with blind or visually impaired students and job seekers of any age.