The 2017 Scholarship Program: A Spotlight on Our Winners

From the Editor

The National Federation of the Blind awards 30 scholarships to outstanding students in the classroom, in the community, and beyond. We are proud of these academically talented, yet exquisitely diverse individuals, for raising the expectations of blind people across the nation. Below, we will hear from five exceptional scholarship recipients, as they share some personal sentiments proceeding the 2017 National convention. Note: Scholarship applications open on November 1, 2017 and close on March 31, 2018.

Andrew Sydlik

I was overwhelmed and transformed by my first NFB convention. As a Ph.D. student at the Ohio State University, I have been studying American literature from a Disability Studies perspective. Disability Studies reflects the NFB's philosophy that the obstacle to success is not one's disability, but society's prejudices and barriers. I came back to school after 10 years working in the nonprofit sector because I still had not come to terms with my blindness, and I wanted to learn about those who had come to think more critically about society's attitudes towards blindness and other disabilities. I discovered the wonderful world of Disability Studies and disability rights, in which the NFB has played a huge role. I also felt that the administrative work I was doing, while valuable, was not quite as intellectually or politically challenging and satisfying as the kind of work I wanted to do. Although I have come a long way in the last five years, from feeling ashamed by my white cane to feeling empowered by it, I was forced to confront all the internalized stigma and doubt I still had about blindness at the NFB conference. I've always thought of myself in terms of limitation rather than possibility, and having met all the amazing and accomplished people at the convention, I realize even more fully that this does not need to be so. And hearing collectively the diverse and impressive range of work that the NFB does, I know the opportunities available are virtually boundless. I plan to continue my involvement with the NFB, at the local, state, and national levels as much as possible. And after earning my doctorate, facilitated generously by the support of the NFB and their donors, I see two career paths, either of which will involve my desire to spread the message of disability awareness, acceptance, and rights. I will either continue in academia as a professor, informing students about the misconceptions and prejudices towards blindness and other disabilities. The other path involves entering the disability nonprofit sector, bringing my disability awareness and writing skills to disability services or advocacy work. Whatever I do, I will work hard to make other blind and disabled people know that they can live the lives they want.

Trin Ha

When I applied for the 2017 NFB scholarship, all I knew was that if I won, I would get a chance to attend the National Convention in Orlando, Florida. No words can sufficiently describe the excitement I felt when Mary Fernandez, one of the members of the scholarship committee, gave me a call and notified me that I had been chosen as a finalist. It was like a dream come true. I thought to myself, that someone would finally help to pay the expenses for me to visit another state of the beautiful country I have come to love so dearly. When July rolled around, I realized though my trip to Orlando would not be a vacation. I was quite certain it would be an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I felt like I had been led to a whole new world. Never before had I seen so many blind people with so many canes and guide dogs confidently and independently on the move at such a big hotel like Rosen Shingle Creek. The week was packed with meetings and activities. At first, I was both scared, lost, confused, and overwhelmed. I wished there was a way I could just take the money and fly right back to Arkansas. As time continued, my fears were replaced with happiness. I gradually understood fully what some people meant when they told me I will gain so much more from my first NFB convention than just a scholarship. I bonded with mentors as well as friends who saw the potential in me and believed in me more than I'd ever believed in myself. I discovered some divisions such as NABS, Sports & Recreation, and a few others that I want to be a part of. Growing up in Vietnam where society still has very low expectations for people with disabilities, my heart burst with joy when I got to meet and talk with several blind persons who are successful in all kinds of professions. From now on, I definitely know what I am going to tell my Vietnamese friends if they ask me what kinds of jobs do blind people in America do. I admire the wonderful work the National Federation of the Blind does and the great diversity it has. I wish to bring back to my home country the knowledge I have acquired, so that someday blind people there can also live the lives they want. I am much honored to have had the opportunity to be a scholarship finalist, and I am really grateful to those who have worked so hard to put on such a wonderful convention.

Maureen Niedfeld

Being a Home Management teacher at the Colorado Center for the Blind, I was excited to attend the convention not as a CCB staff member, but as a scholarship finalist. I was also excited with the prospect of receiving mentorship from so many members of the organization. I recently returned to college at The Metropolitan State University of Denver to study Nutrition and Dietetics and was so honored to be selected as a finalist. I received the news that I was a finalist and shortly after underwent major brain surgery and woke up with new physical deficits that I had never experienced; low blood pressure, poor balance, and no function of my right arm and hand now posed new challenges. How was I going to be able to get through convention and also be able to absorb and receive everything that I knew would be offered? Because of these health complications, the thought of not attending the National Convention for the first time since I became a member nine years ago made me realize how much I need this charge every year, to be with and share these beliefs with members from all over the country. The National Federation of the Blind met my worries of my new challenges with the same attitude that they have on blindness - that anything can be overcome. Prior to the convention, I received the encouragement and support that I needed to feel confident that I could attend convention with all of my new health concerns. The week provided me with life changing mentorship, a fresh perspective on my purpose in the organization, and I believe actually aided in the process of my recovery. Mentally and emotionally, the National Federation of the Blind convention was just where I needed to be. I am excited to pursue my dreams of higher education while being filled with passion for the National Federation of the Blind.

Aneri Brahmbhatt

Convention week was a week full of firsts for me. My first time flying completely alone; my first NFB convention; my first time being surrounded by so many successful blind people (and let's not forget the abundance of sweeping canes). Walking through those hotel lobby doors, I had to stop and take it all in. From checking in to finding my room to finding the people I was supposed to meet, every experience boosted my confidence because I was doing it all independently. By Wednesday, I had the layout of the hotel figured out, and it was truly a proud moment when I got to the meeting room by myself. Other than raising my self-confidence though, the convention helped me to realize how involved the NFB is in issues that directly affect me, as well as issues I didn't even know were issues. My awareness was most definitely increased. The resolutions meeting was truly eye opening. I didn't know there was still so much left to accomplish. Convention was also full of fun activities like the NABS student Olympics, karaoke, and a performing arts panel, just to mention a few. Though this was my first convention, I sincerely believe it won't be my last.

Sophie Trist

I'm a Louisiana native. In the summer of 1997, I was a year old, and I'd already undergone several surgeries. My parents had tried to restore some vision in my right eye, but by then, it was pretty clear that I would be totally blind. That's when they found out that the National Federation of the Blind was holding its annual convention in New Orleans. They went to meet other blind people and see what resources the NFB had to offer. I don't remember that first convention, but my parents were inspired by the Federationists they met there, and they raised me with the belief that if I had determination and good blindness skills, I could turn my dreams into reality.
As a kid, I attended student seminars and summer programs at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I didn't personally engage with NFB philosophy until I attended the STEPP program in 2013. There, I met students who had faced accessibility barriers in their education and learned about the ways blind people are discriminated against. A few months before the program began, I took a trip to Disney World with my eighth grade class and took advantage of the fast passes available to disabled people. One of the STEPP instructors told me something that still resonates with me to this day: "If blind people want the same rights as our sighted peers, we must accept the same responsibilities." I'm a Federationist because I want equality. I've never had to struggle for my education, but I want to advocate for those who have. That's why I am proud and honored to be an NFB scholarship winner.