Pursuing Education: Carson's Support Network

[Carson] I was born and raised in Olympia Washington, a great place to grow up and a very supportive environment. I attended excellent schools with teachers who understood my needs and valued me as a person. It was also a great time for doing what I really love, music. I started the French horn in 6th grade and it has been a real passion of mine ever since. I began by playing in the Youth Symphony, and was eventually performing with several community orchestras, a musical theater, an opera company and numerous other "gigs" around town. Music was very important for me because it gave me something to focus on other then my learning disability.

If anything was more supportive than my community, it was my family. My parents worked very hard to ensure I had a good experience growing up. They made sure I took advantage of as many opportunities as possible. But what I liked most is how they let me develop on my own and think for myself rather then pushing their ideas on me. I never felt like there were big expectations of me; my mom would say "I don't care what grades you get" and I was never rewarded for getting A's. What my parents did do was try to develop a strong feeling of self-worth. This made me conscious of my own actions and gave me intrinsic motivation, which, now that I'm in college, I value more then ever.

My specific learning disability is one that affects my ability to read. Before fifth grade I could not really read anything but my name and a few words. I have an extreme difficulty with blending sounds together (phonemic awareness). In middle school I began learning sight words and reading short stories and continued this through high school. I can now easily recognize over one thousand words. Obviously, this is not nearly enough to get by. That is why assistive technology has been invaluable to me. I would not have been able to go to college without it.

From the beginning, school posed a major challenge for me. As I mentioned, my teachers were very understanding. I can recall the first meeting with my second-grade teacher about accommodations. She said it would be no problem if I drew pictures of words I didn't know. I remember thinking it was kind of a crazy idea but that is when I really started to think about alternative ways of doing things. Fast forwarding to high school, drawing picture words was not going to suffice anymore. When I entered high school I was already taking advantage of books on tape and recording devices. But this was not enough to meet the challenges of the honors program I enrolled in. The special education coordinator strongly urged me to reconsider the honors courses and instead enroll in remedial English and easier classes. I politely refused, knowing full well the challenges that lay before me. My first year I relied on a lot of help from my parents and teachers. I knew this could not continue. At the end of that year the same special education coordinator was impressed with my persistence and suggested I apply to the DO-IT Scholars program.

My decision to apply to the DO-IT Scholars program in my sophomore year was one of the best choices I have ever made. My first DO-IT experience was at "Summer Study 2002". Whatever reservations I had were totally blown away by the end of the two-week whirlwind experience. Not only had I created a great support network of friends, but I had learned how to use some amazing assistive technology. Thanks to the text-to-speech and speech-to-text software DO-IT supplied me with I could now read and write anything on my own! The next year in school was completely different than earlier years. I was able to write papers, do research, and express myself like I was never able to do before. DO-IT also got me thinking more seriously about college. During Summer Study I was able to meet with disabled student service representatives from colleges and even professors to learn about resources available to me. As a result I felt much more comfortable and confident about my college search the next year.

A great benefit of DO-IT is the support network it created for me. While I was lucky to have a good network at home and school, DO-IT extended this in several important ways. Firstly, I had never had any friends who were disabled. Even though I went to a large high school I still felt like I was the only one. At DO-IT I met some really interesting people that I can identify with on a deeper level. Also the DO-IT staff were an amazing resource for me throughout high school. From college recommendations, to job-shadow connections, to technology support, to moral support, they have really been there for me. Now that I am in college I find DO-IT staff even more valuable as a resource for learning about internship opportunities and even for academic support. I think what brings all this together is the strong online network DO-IT has created. Anytime I have a question or concern I ask the online mentoring community, and I am always guaranteed a thoughtful response from either a staff member, a former DO-IT Scholar, or a mentor from DO-IT's global network.

All these connections would not be possible were it not for the technology DO-IT supplied me with. I would not be where I am at today without the assistive technology I was introduced to through DO-IT. Before using it I always felt like my work was not my own. There's nothing worse than trying to record a cohesive English essay into a tape recorder, then transferring that to the computer via mom - not a pleasant experience! I had really low self-confidence in my writing abilities as a result. The technology from DO-IT changed all that. I could now transfer my speech directly to the computer and listen to it immediately. As a result I ended up doing very well in English and history. The technology also gave me a lot more confidence not only in my high school classes but life in general. I feel now like I can make my own contributions and have a good career.

I knew that what I needed on my path to success was a great college education. Through DO-IT, I was able to learn a lot of the ins and outs of college life before I was even there. It's made things seem a lot less scary. One of the most important things I learned at DO-IT was how to go about requesting accommodations. It is one thing to go to your teacher in high school to talk about your accommodation needs, but it is a little different going to a professor! Through workshops at Summer Study I was able to learn about the best way to request accommodations. When I actually got to college last year everything went very smoothly.

Overall I felt well prepared for college. Based on my experiences with DO-IT there were very few surprises for my first quarter at the University of Washington. I took a fairly strenuous load of economics, chemistry, honors calculus, symphony and French horn lessons. At one point during the quarter I was feeling really stressed out about chemistry. It was hard for me to find the right things to study fast enough using my technology. I talked to the DO-IT staff about this and they were able to set me up with a free tutor through a grant from the National Science Foundation. That helped a lot and I ended up doing great in the class. I am very thankful for the experiences and support the DO-IT program gave me that helped me to succeed.

I've begun to look beyond college to real world experiences such as summer internships and experiences abroad. Through DO-IT I have been able to learn about many exciting opportunities for summer employment. Last summer I completed an internship at NASA where I worked on the space shuttle in New Orleans. In past years I have also taken several job shadows through DO-IT that gave me a good feel for what I might want to pursue. For example, I met with an aerospace engineer at the Federal Aviation Administration and I shadowed a finance expert at Microsoft. I am beginning my junior year at the University of Washington studying business and studied abroad in the Czech Republic last quarter. I also spent time this summer traveling abroad where I met many interesting people and learned more about the world and myself.

Looking back on everything, I am amazed at where I have gone given the severity of my reading disability. The DO-IT program has been instrumental in helping me achieve my dreams. The staff and mentors have not done things for me, but, like my parents, they have encouraged me to learn to do things for myself. I now feel like I am in control of where I am going in life and it is a very good feeling.