Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A visually impaired woman receives her Science degree

So many times, Carshena Gary just wanted to give up. Stay home instead of getting up by 5 a.m. to leave her Hampton apartment and wait for the Handi-Ride bus to carry her to another bus for the trek across the water to wait for yet another bus to get to her 8 a.m. classes in downtown Norfolk.
Then there were days when teachers spoke as if she could see the board and read words in a book. But Gary, 31, had promised herself more than a decade ago that she wasn't going to let blindness or its challenges stop her.

Tonight, she will receive her associate of science degree during Tidewater Community College's graduation at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. More than 1,600 are expected to receive degrees, certificates or diplomas.

"Sometimes I would feel like I'm down and out, but I'd keep on pressing," Gary said. "But I say everything is possible through Christ."

Her mother, Elsie, said Carshena has always been determined, even at around 3 years old when a brain tumor damaged her optic nerves.

"She didn't care for people to help her that much," Elsie Gary said. "She always liked to do things herself."

Carshena Gary said that by the time she was 12, she had developed some ability to perceive light - shadows, the shape of a stair, a dark figure walking in her path.

She took classes at Hampton High and the now-closed Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled in Hampton. She insisted on catching the bus like other students. Often, in the hallways at Hampton High, students offered to help her to class. Sometimes she'd accept; even with her independent streak, she realized that she, like anyone else, could use an occasional hand. Sometimes she'd decline but invite them to walk along with her.

"I wanted them to learn how to treat and relate to a visually impaired person as well."

After graduating from Hampton High in 1996, she enrolled in a community college but found it difficult without enough support. She took time off from school and tried to find work. No one would hire her, she said, and she continues to live on Supplemental Security Income. But she kept going with the support of her family and friends. With her mom's prodding, she got her own apartment six years ago.

"I told her I didn't know how long I would be with her," Elsie Gary said, "and I didn't want her to depend on her siblings or one day be in a nursing home."

She took a few courses at Thomas Nelson Community College, but it wasn't until she enrolled at TCC and worked with the disability services department that she found the right match.

At other schools, she said, teachers would have students help her. At TCC, an experienced staff member read tests to her and helped her in biology lab.

"I think TCC has been the best accommodating college that I've ever attended," she said. "They look out for their people. They let them know that they are there."

Gary plans to retake some courses at TCC to improve her grades and then transfer to Old Dominion University or Norfolk State University. Her goal is to become a guidance counselor and teach children to navigate the world.

"Sometimes adults are so hard to work with," she said. "I'm the kind of person who stands up for my rights, who stands up for the rights of others. That's why I want to work with children."

Denise Watson Batts, (757) 446-2504, denise.batts@pilotonline.com


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