College Success Series - Intro


College success intro


Hello, and welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. Each week, our hope is to provide you with an inside look at special education topics-- in particular, visual impairment. Through a series of interviews with leaders in the field and a fresh look at our webcast series, we know you will learn something new when you are on the go. Now it's time to sit back, relax, and let's hear what this week's podcast is all about.


Hello, and welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. This is Valerie. As young adults are transitioning to college, there are many unknowns for the student. What is the best school? How will they find classes? Will they make friends? For many this might be the first time out on their own, first time they've had to figure out where to eat, or even how to do their own laundry. This can be intimidating for any young adult, but now imagine your child has a visual impairment. Finding classes, making new friends, any of these unknowns can be a challenge for these students. How can they be better equipped for college? Enter College Success.

This program is in its second year at Perkins. And the purpose is to help those children with visual impairment improve their orientation and mobility skills, learn how to cook for themselves, do laundry, and all the basics they will need to give them that extra confidence needed for independent living. We will be talking with Kate Katulak and Leslie Thatcher about this program. They will be presenting some tips and thought pauses on how this process to transition can be a smooth one. I'm also excited to tell you this will be a four part series. Today, we will set the stage, meet Leslie and Kate, and discover what the program is. Then brace yourself for four more podcasts dedicated to this subject of transitioning.

So Kate and Leslie, thank you so much for joining me today.

Great to be here.

Thanks for having us.

So I understand there's a new program at Perkins called College Success Program. Can you talk more about what that program is?

All right, so college success is a nine month residential program. We've just started our second year. It's designed for high school graduates-- for current college students who realize that they need some more skill development to be ready to really take on college successfully. We focus on blindness and academic skills at the same time, and do it in a very holistic 360 modeled, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So it really allows students to not only gain skills, but then practices those skills in an environment that both challenges them, but understands the unique learning curve they need to be on to get independent with those skills. So it is robust. It's hard work, but it's an awful lot of fun as well.

Wonderful. Will the students stay here at Perkins?

Yes. The residential portion of the program is actually in a cottage here on Perkins campus in Watertown. What's fantastic about that is it's a wonderful living space. It's beautiful. It's got a beautiful teaching kitchen. So students can really engage and explore with basic independent living skills, and then kick it up a notch where they really want to refine their skills. For example, last year we had some students who really wanted to learn specific recipes-- whether it was for a particular baked good that they really enjoyed or a particular food their family made-- so they could do that. Or they could just learn how to cook quick and easy meals that any normal person has to figure out-- how to make a baked potato--

Like a college--


--ramen and--

College student.

--or something. [CHUCKLES]

Just, you know, all of us living on budgets, learning how to manage all of those details. Quantity, even. What's an appropriate quantity for one person, for seven people? Also within Tompkins is a tech center that is equipped with state of the art tech, which means everything from different kinds of laptops with different types of software, in addition to all the other different tools that students might need-- both for low vision use and for blindness for screen readers. So it's a robust setting here on our campus. And then we have, obviously, the wonderful resources at Perkins. Within the program, we also have a full-time orientation and mobility instructor, a full- time VRT-- a visionary rehabilitation teacher-- as well as a robust tech curriculum that's taught by a number of both CATIS-certified and other tech teachers.


So it's a robust program here on our campus. And then as students begin to gain independence, and skills, and confidence, and an awareness of what they want to do and where they want to go, we have all of Cambridge and Boston to take advantage of--

So close.

--and as those orientation and mobility skills begin to evolve, they can take the bus line that runs a block away. They can take it down to Harvard Square or grab the red line into Boston, and really begin to take on the world on their own terms-- which is really what independence is.


It's pretty ideal, as far as I'm concerned, for launching young adults out there in the world in ways that make sense for them.

For many of our students-- when they come to our program-- it may be the first opportunity they've had to leave the nest-- to separate themselves as adults, to separate themselves from their parents and the safety net of their communities-- which is scary, but really important and an essential piece of learning how to be an independent member of society. So the residential component of our program-- in many ways-- is extremely unique and important for student success, because they don't just have opportunities to try new things, and prove themselves, and fail successfully, and try again. They are forced into it, and you can see the evolution of their skills. When they first enter the program, there is often a lack of confidence and feelings of, I'm not sure if I can do this-- maybe because they have new visual impairment or because they haven't had opportunities to challenge themselves in those types of ways in the past. And then I would say maybe mid-fall, late-fall, you start to hear things like, oh no, I got this. I'll be fine--

That's wonderful.

--I've done-- I did that a couple of months ago. So it's great to see.

Have you had anyone go through the program who may not have cooked previously, but then after becoming more comfortable and confident, is something they wanted to pursue as a career?

Well, we've only we've only had one cohort come through. So I don't know that I would say they've pursued it as a career, but I think their palette opened up significantly. [LAUGHS]

It's not just baked potatoes anymore.



I only eat noodles to they were eating everything under the sun.


Which was really fun. I will say, our team is-- we're foodies to our souls. And so there's a lot of food talk going on in the cottage at any given time. So it's hard not to get psyched about curries and all the fun stuff we do. But we want for food prep-- for example-- as a metaphor for any one of these learning points. We want it to be in terms of work for that individual student. And so if learning how to bake is important, fine. If learning super simple stuff is important, awesome. Learning the Instant Pot and all the buttons on that, let's take it on. So it really just depends on the individual student. We start from where they are and where they start, and we bring them as far as they can get, based on ideas that they generate along the way. And it's a dialogue back and forth, and an evolution as the year goes on.

Nice. So why is there a need for something like this? Why College Success?

Oh. It's such a big question. There's no simple answer. Every student, I think, comes at learning-- every student-- in different ways, and growing and evolving into being adults. But we do know time is an element that impacts that learning. And in this particular case, because we know so well that incidental learning is such an essential part of anyone's learning. And the ECC supports that, right?


However, learning is super complex. And each one of us brings strengths and challenges to it. And if schools don't have enough time to teach and fill in those backfill-- basically, where they're missing that incidental learning-- they graduate from high school not having had the time to develop those robust-- and you need to be robust, and persistent, and resilient in those skills-- academically and personally.

Four years in high school is not a lot of time to both tackle the classic academic expectations that college has-- four years of English, three years of math minimally, two to three years of lab science, two years of world language. In a typically sighted young person aspiring to go to college, that's a standard curriculum. If you layer on extra classes, pull-outs, other things that interrupt that learning process or that are just simply making that learning possible by teaching skills to access that learning, that impacts all sorts of things. It reduces the types of math courses, the number of science courses, the rigor of the English course students are often recommended to take. And so there just isn't enough time to do all those things and build that confidence-- personally, academically-- and then be able to articulate-- as a young adult-- oh, I'm super interested in X or Y in my future. I want to be a teacher, because I've seen all the amazing things they can do. And I love how those days roll, and the difference that every day brings.

There isn't enough time to get out there and explore those things that also help inform a student who's ready to go and endure the not so fun parts of college and see that larger goal unwind. Even finding time to participate in some type of athletic activity, or extracurricular activity, or job, or volunteer, those become quite challenging when you're trying to layer on all of this other skill development-- family obligations, perhaps distance from resources. That starts to burden all of those opportunities. This extra year of College Success allows that robust, holistic skill development, and allows them to be integrated together where the academic skills complement the personal skills. The personal skills complement the O&M. The O&M empowers the student to consider a whole new career they never dreamed of. [CLAP] And doing that 360 in this residential environment is a powerful recipe for empowerment and independence. And that's why there's a need for College Success.

It's difficult to make that occur in a student's home and in their high school environment, just 'cause that's not the purpose of it.


But College Success will add that next step of growth, and independence, and self realization-- that independent living. And, as Kate says, successful failure, failing successfully is a beautiful thing. So many students are really deprived of that in some learning environments. And that failure can often bring greater insight, resilience-- which is critical-- and an awareness of one's actual strengths and challenges, and opportunities for growth. And we're big fans of taking risks appropriately, learning from those, readjusting and trying again. And high school doesn't allow that time to really wrestle that down.

Well, you mentioned academic as well. So are they able to get college credit for what they're doing in College Success, or what happens? Is it just a preparation for them or is it attached to their college?

It's a little bit of both. First semester they spend working in developing skills for independence-- tech skills, orientation and mobility, independent living, an awareness of what they're interested in exploring and studying-- both academically and as it relates to career. So fall is really about creating a foundation, really rich, robust foundation. Second semester is where students can take one to two college classes. That said, they may or may not be for credit. Like most colleges have placement tests and-- [CHUCKLES] it's the only ones we work with-- and so students are very normal in that sense. They have gotta go. They've got to take the placement test, and then explore the courses that they are potentially placed into. Sometimes, that's a review of math, a review of critical reading or writing skills, because that's where they placed--


--just like every other student. The colleges that we work with have a range of courses that address that need. Some students have had college experience, and they may place into college credit-bearing courses. Every student's profile is different.

Oh, OK.

Their goals are different. And we do a pretty one-on-one, very individualized analysis with each student. Based on their personal goals, we can do combinations of one class online and another class in person. If they want to work on not overwhelming themselves with an orientation and mobility challenge, but they definitely want to take two classes, right?


How beautiful is that?


So some students may complete College Success and graduate with college credits, some may not.

It's just very unique.

It's each person's unique. And we're helping them find their way to what the reality of college is, how it feels like. And and in some cases, they may ask, is this really the right match for me? College is a complicated mechanism in our society today. And I think it's code for, I want to be successful in the next phase of my life. And college seems like the simple code word I'll use for, this is what I do next if I'm ambitious and want to be someone. I think there's so many more layers to that conversation that I love having with students, I think are critical to have with students. And college is rigorous hard work. And we want to support our students to be ready for that. But if someone were to say, oh my stars I really don't (CHUCKLING) enjoy this at all, OK. Well, then let's look at that.

Yeah, it's not for everybody.

It's not. And we know that public high schools-- particularly-- are struggling to do the kind of college counseling and advising needed in that one-on-one, individualized teasing apart nuances that students really benefit from. And we see this across the college going population, this is not unique to students with vision impairment. This is a challenge across our country. And so we are working on that front, too, and robustly engaging with students--


--where they are-- what they're interested in, and what their skills are. And we do a lot of talking, a lot of assessment, a lot of exploration of possibility. And it's fun, and lights them on fire. I don't know, what do you want to add to that, Kate?


Kate does a lot of this part of the work.


Well, I'm thinking back to when you asked, why College Success? And I want to add, I think I could argue that any recent graduate from high school could benefit from a gap year program where they learn essential college-going skills. The financial aid process alone, getting into the right college, choosing a major, choosing a course load, understanding your learnings, I could go on. There are so many variables to being a college student and finishing your degree. And now add in a visual impairment to the mix, and it's compounded by all of those things-- orientation mobility, how do I get around on my campus, how do I make friends when social cues are often very visual. How do I date? Again, with visual cues being a consideration, how do I know who's sitting next to me? How do I get books in accessible formats? How do I-- do I disclose that I have a disability? What is that process like? How do I navigate a disability service office? We cover all of those things.

And our staff, we have staff who are visually impaired. Les already overviewed the people who are in our program. But everyone is bringing a unique approach to how they were successful in college, and what it really takes to get to that next level. Not every student who comes to our program is going to be a 4.0 student, and that's OK. We help them set realistic goals that make the most sense for them. It's very individualized.

Kate what do you think the barriers are that are preventing students from learning these essential skills?

I think there are many variables for college students who are visually impaired. And the barriers begin quite young. We need to tackle challenges to incidental learning, from the moment that a child is born with a visual impairment. It is too late to have a graduating senior with a vision impairment suddenly learn all the things they need to be successful in college or as an adult. We need to, from a very young age, either put a cane in their hands or teach them to use their functional vision to navigate. Thinking about orientation and mobility, starting pretty young, students need to get out of the environment of their school and they need to begin crossing streets and utilizing public transportation or ride sharing systems, so that they can understand that there is a very vast world out there. And they'll begin to connect who they are with where they belong in the rest of the world.

And independent living skills is another area of need. In traditional academic setting, students may learn the Common Core subjects-- math, English, science, history. That's great. It's all information that help them be well-rounded individuals. So that for someone who is blind, who is teaching them how to do their laundry? For someone who's typically sighted, they can go into their college dormitory-- the laundry room-- for the first time-- never having done laundry-- and they just kind of look around. Oh, this is where I put the quarters. Is that still a thing? I'm aging, here.

It is.


It's swipe cards now.

Swipe cards, OK!

This is where I put my payment system, so I can use the machine. This is where the soap goes. They can visually observe all of these things. They can see the colors of their clothing, and they can sort them. Whereas someone who is visually impaired, they may need to have been taught in a very structured way how to separate-- how to identify colors of clothing, how to separate them by textures or other ways, how to use the machine-- someone may need to go in and show them or they need to use technology. There are so many things that cannot possibly be fit into a regular curriculum in the educational system.

And teachers that are visually impaired have a tremendous role and opportunity, I would say, obligation to try and teach those expanded Core Curriculum skills as much as possible. But they are wearing many, many hats in a school where there is a student or students who are blind or visually impaired. They are supporting the general education teachers. They are helping to modify things into braille or large print. They are writing IEPs and progress reports. They are sometimes being liaisons for the parents, connecting the students to helpful agencies and other resources that they need. And then there's the nine areas of the ECC. It's just not possible to fit everything in so soon. So students reach 12th grade, and they may be academically ready, or they may not be academically ready. They may have blindness skills, or it may be time for them to begin to develop some of those things. But there are so many significant challenges, that it's really difficult-- it's a struggle-- to try and hit all of them or even most of them, realistically, before a student goes off to college.

I like how you said about the orientation and mobility for someone who is visually impaired into a college. I can't even imagine how scary that must be for someone who is used to their neighborhood and has lived a relatively sheltered life, now they're just, here you go. So your program sounds fantastic that you can help them with that, and get them to go into Boston.

And part of what we're trying to do is teach skills, so they can be generalized. So instead of uniquely teaching a student's high school O&M, and then deeming them ready to do high school. [CHUCKLES] It's they don't have skills that are generalizable to novel situations.

Or the self-awareness--

Or the self--

--of their current skill levels. They graduate from high school, yeah, I'm independent. I travel all the time by myself. Oh, yeah? Where do you go? Well, my English class. I got to my locker. And then I go home, I take the bus. Well, have you ever crossed the street? No, I don't need to. Have you ever--


--traveled independently? Yeah, I travel all the time. Well, who is with you? My parents. Then it doesn't count.


And part of what-- we've been using the word independent a lot. And we're intentionally doing that, because we really do want to remind ourselves of what that word means for a young person. That does mean doing it without support, without anyone in the room being able to problem solve. And I think one of the barriers-- O&M's a huge one-- but technology is another one. And it's on many layers. It's relatively brand new, right, in our conception of what a TVI does. It's a new thing. In the last 15 years, it's become a significant mechanism and-- in some places-- singular access to learning, and I will say literacy-- as in having a broad fund of knowledge, having a broad vocabulary, being able to do word attack with novel language that you haven't encountered before. These are all literacy skills that colleges assume that students have.

Now, I will say I have worked with a wide range of students [CHUCKLES] who don't read at all. And so there's definitely that in our society right now. And we know that students are also reading differently now. They're reading shorter snippets. Teachers and professors are creating different assignments, based on the type of engagement people have with language nowadays.


Write a tweet. You know, all of that. But, nonetheless, one still needs vocabulary to read complex, college level reading. One needs word attack skills. And when we assume technology as a simple solution-- without a really intentional scaffolded out curriculum of how do I use this, what are the ways I can use this tool, what are the various forms of technology that are going to allow me to access what I need to learn-- whether it's converting a document to a readable format, whether it's reading websites, capturing quotations efficiently, and being able to leverage them in a paper, being able to use-- a visual tool I've used for years is a graphic organizer. How can something like that that helps organize paragraphs, as you teach writing skills or larger papers for more robust assignments-- for a student who might need that organizational support-- how do we convert that to something that can be leveraged for a student who is using a screen reader?


Right? Without that integration of an understanding of a learning obstacle with the way a student uniquely accesses information, it's more challenging. It's not that they can't. It is more challenging to create an organizational structure in their mind. And that's where this integration of technology is not that simple.


It's super complex. And we can't assume handing a young person an iPad is somehow an instant solution. But I fear we might be falling in that trap. And it takes years to learn the skills. And the insta-solution relaxes a student-- perhaps-- into a, I've got this. I'm all set with my iPhone-- [CHUCKLES] --to read all my documents. [LAUGHS] And so I know Kate could talk for days about this, too. But technology is this weird barrier, in that it's this extraordinary opportunity, and yet a barrier-- at the same time.

Also, in college, reading demands increase exponentially. So the reading medium that worked for a student in high school and younger years, may no longer be appropriate-- or may not be the most efficient-- for a student who is visually impaired. For instance, we really see a lot of struggles in particular for students who have low vision-- who have relied on their vision, either using a video magnifier or large print text to read. And then they go to college, and they have hundreds of pages to read per week. And they experience eye strain, fatigue, headaches. And so their disability service office works with them to get things in an audio format. But if they've never learned by listening before, they are really going to struggle. So then the issue becomes they're no longer using all of the skill-building that they developed in high school-- which is supposed to be preparing them for college. They are transitioning to something completely new.

Imagine having to take a high stakes test for the first time. You would want to make sure that you have all the right tools in place. But this happens a lot where a student will be in a situation, where suddenly they have to take high stakes tests under completely different circumstances than that they're familiar with. Suddenly, the large print that was available to them in high school is no longer cutting it. So they are challenged to use a screen reader without being trained on it. Or they are given audiobooks for studying, but they don't either know how to use the right players, or they don't know how to keep their attention focused on something when they're listening to it without some sort of visual follow along that they can do. So a lot of information gets lost. And that all ties into their confidence, their self-awareness about whether college is appropriate. They start doubting whether they should be there, then that has social implications. It's this snowball effect that happens. And there's so many different dips that can really trip a student up, because the right things weren't thought of, when it was early enough to happen.

Students who do rely on large print, they should be challenged to take on a lot of reading in high school-- to the same amount that they would be doing in college. And if a teacher finds that they're not able to keep up, then they should begin training them early on other ways of accessing information.

And I think that's actually a really critical point Kate makes right there. Anecdotally, we've noticed a reduction in assignments and output expectations for some students-- probably not all. Some may be fighting tooth and nail to get exactly what their peer's getting in whatever class they're in. But because of that push and that pressure to get a student graduated-- quote-- on time, reading maybe reduced. An attitude of, oh, you don't need to do that. You'll be fine, versus empowering a student to develop stamina to read. We're talking hundreds to 150 pages a week--


--is a standard-- on the low side-- potential college reading burden. And if a student has been doing two hours of homework a week total, their experience and the reality of engaging, digesting, and effectively storing all that 150 pages, they don't have that muscle memory yet. Whereas a student who may be challenged in 9th grade-- I've worked with ninth graders for years. Many are not ready to read that much. And they bump and they struggle. And biology's brutal, because the language is tough and it's all interrelated. And they have to relearn how to read critically, how to read with intent, how to take notes that are functional, how to master new vocabulary and interrelate it all. And then digested it all, and spit it out on a test. That's a really appropriate skill but it's hard for many, many, many students. Our students must also wrestle with those same things. And those opportunities seem to be reduced for them.

I'm glad you guys-- we're going to do a multi-part series on College Success, some of the challenges. And you guys have been nice enough to want to do multi-parts with us for the podcast. So I want to save some of these goodies--

Yeah. [LAUGHS]

--for the future ones.

We could talk all day.

[LAUGHS] But could you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you became interested and to be involved in this type of work?

Kate, you want to dive in first?


I'm the associate director of College Success and a certified teacher of students that are visually impaired. And I'm going to give you the abbreviated version--


--of my tale, because I feel like there is a lot of pathways that sort of led me here. And it feels very full circle to be where I am. But it all starts back when I was a teenager and became unexpectedly blind. And I met a lot of other students-- I went to a school for the blind for about a year to learn some blindness skills. And I met a lot of students who-- around my age or younger-- were struggling in a lot of different ways-- academically, socially, just fitting in and feeling confident. And so fast forward a ways after I got my bachelors in psychology, and I started working at a center for emotional intelligence on a social emotional learning curriculum. And the program we were developing was to train teachers on how to help their students be socially and emotionally literate. How to understand the causes and consequences of emotions. How to read other people's expressions, body language, and then react to them. And so it occurred to me that those skills would be amazing to teach to students who were blind or visually impaired.

So I literally quit my job, after networking with some teachers that are visually impaired-- and starting to adapt some of the tools we had for individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Quit my job, went to grad school to become a TVI. And once I graduated, I became an itinerant teacher in Stanford Public Schools for a couple of years. And by nothing other than serendipity, I somehow ended up crossing paths with some people at Perkins and knew that this is where I belonged. So being a TVI was-- for me-- an amazing starting point to-- again-- bringing me to this place where I feel like it all has come together, because I lost my vision just a few years before I had to go to college. And I had to learn so many different things. And I had to go through so many different changes. And there was a lot of grief. There was a lot of, am I doing this OK? Am I going to be OK? So much learning and emotion that came along with that. And I did it! And I'm really proud that I did it!

And I'm often now in this position of reflecting back on how I did some of those things. And it feels like a really beautiful thing that I'm able to share some of my own experiences with our College Success students. And I think it's powerful to be able to say, hey, I went through something similar. Can I share with you a little bit about my experience and how I pulled through? I think it's really great. It's a human thing to open yourself up to other people who have shared experiences, and to learn from them. And I said this is going to be the short version, it's not.


But I just feel so fulfilled by this journey. And when College Success was presented to me as a new initiative that was being taken on by Perkins, I couldn't have raise my hand fast enough, because it just called out to me.

And what's more rewarding than being able to pay it forward, essentially?


And I imagine with some of these kids that might come in, who might have lost their sight later on, you can relate to them and really help them.

Right. Yeah.

And what she doesn't mention, she's also a superb teacher with great depth, and passion, and a Pied Piper-esque--


--attitude that is hard to resist. So that is part of the secret sauce going on here, too, for sure.

Thank you, Leslie.

You're welcome.

And what about you, Leslie?

Like Kate, I had a journey-- a different journey. And we talk about journeys a lot in College Success. Everybody's on a journey, and it's usually not a particularly straight road. I've been an educator my whole entire career, with one brief stop off as a sales rep for a tour boat. But I was certified to teach secondary history and social studies a couple years ago-- a couple of decades ago. And I really found myself not enjoying that ginormous classroom experience. I really wanted more connection with students, more one-on-one work. And found myself landing in college admissions offices, working for a college out on the west coast and working with students for about seven years in that role. Somewhere in there, I got my master's degree in education and educational leadership. And found myself doing a lot of work related to that. So I became a Learning Specialist working with students with learning differences-- a broad range of learning differences-- from dyslexia to executive functioning challenges, to ADHD-- working with them to find ways to become more successful and effective in their education environment, from grades six through all the way postgraduate students-- much like her College Success students. It's my favorite work. I love it. And I really get to work one-on-one, teasing apart what doesn't work, what is working, how do we put this all back together in something that feels great and empowers you?

So my journey has led me to lots of different things as a Learning Specialist, and admissions person, and college counselor. So I found myself here at just the right time in combination with my career. And I think my background in the typically sighted world of college-bound students has really complemented Kate's background as a TVI par excellence. And we are-- we're having a lot of fun knitting them together, and finding out where there are gaps on both sides, and beginning to explore ways to articulate that.

You can certainly see the passion that you both have for this. And it's going to be really interesting to hear what more you have to say going forward. Thank you very much for joining me.

Thank you so much for having us.

Thanks for having us.

We look forward to it.


Perkins eLearning To Go is a production of Perkins eLearning at Perkins School for the Blind. Perkins eLearning partners with school districts and agencies to provide customized training for educators of students with visual impairments with and without additional disabilities. Training agreements with Perkins e-Learning give you the school-wide range you're looking for, without having to take on the logistics of managing your program. We are an ACVREP-certified provider, and we are approved for continuing teacher and leader education-- CTLE-- requirements by the state of New York. In addition to providing professional development points and continuing education credits, certain titles are eligible for ASHA and AOTA credits. Contact us at to discuss your training needs, both short and long term.


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