Deciding to go to university can be a daunting thought for all students but especially for those of us who are visually impaired.
From the process of applying to university to balancing the demands of student life and study, it can be a roller coaster for all but none more than the VI student. And on occasions I was overwhelmed. But I found ways of coping and put strategies in place that allowed me to enjoy my time at university and graduate with a first class honours degree.
Take my advice, make the most of all of your experiences and have fun! Drawing on my own experiences, I want to show that many of my initial fears about going to university were thankfully non-existent or easily conquered. Whatever your early experience of going to university, believe me when I say that you will look back over the three years and only remember the good bits, of which there will be many.
The decision to move away from home is life-transforming. While the academic process is designed to prepare you for the work place, moving away from home forces all students to become more independent. As a VI student, choosing to live in university halls of residence can provide a very meaningful opportunity to develop your independent living skills.
I found that not all halls of residence are the same. You need to contact your chosen university’s Disability Support Office and organise to view accommodation that best suit your disability needs. This will help eliminate some of the potential challenges associated with starting university. For example, you may require a room that has more natural light or depending on your mobility needs you may need a room that is close to your location of study. You may find a room you like that requires adapting to your specific needs – make sure you communicate these to your Disability Advisor – it is their job to ensure that the required adjustments are made for you.
It is not uncommon for some students to feel home sick. The longer you resist the urge to travel home, the easier it will be to adapt to your new home at university. Make the most of your first few weeks at university and make the effort to spend some quality time with your flatmates – at the end of the day, you will be spending a whole year with them.
Whether or not you choose to stay in halls of residence, learning how to navigate around and off campus is critical to how you settle into and enjoy university life. Remember, as a VI student you will be entitled to mobility training sessions, which will be funded through the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA). As a VI student it is very important that you submit your DSA application as soon as possible to ensure that all of your support needs are covered and ready for you to access before you start your course. It is also important that you arrange your mobility sessions before your university start date, as this will allow you to learn the required routes in a quiet setting. This will ensure that you are more comfortable and confident with your mobility skills when your course starts and the university becomes more crowded.
Choosing the right course
All students face the pressure of choosing the right course for them. My advice is to research courses of interest and to attend as many university open days as possible. I found open days a great way to speak with lecturers and current students. I learnt so much more about the demands of the course and life at the university than I did from any website.
Accessing course material
Once you have received an offer from your chosen university, it is important that you contact your university’s Disability Support Office and start developing the Support Plan that will enable you to successfully access your course. The format of course materials is critical. It is your Disability Support Officer that will liaise with your Programme Leaders and the Library Support Team to make sure that everything is ready for you when your course starts.
Making friends at university
While I found the social aspect of starting university scary I reminded myself that we were all in the same situation and nobody knew anyone else either. And while I found the first few weeks a little awkward, spending time with people I didn’t know, it was the perfect opportunity for me to form new friendships many of which I know will last for life. Building stronger relationships with your flatmates is probably the first opportunity that you will have to form a network that will support you through the rest of your degree. Your course you will also be a great source of new friendships. Joining societies is also a really practical way to meet other like-minded individuals that have similar interests to you.
Remember, university is all about new experiences and making memories. All of that initial awkwardness will contribute to your personal development and prepare you for the wider world of work.
‘Fresher’s Week’ is probably the highlight for all first year students. Being VI should not prevent you from making the most of what is on offer. Whether it’s going for drinks with new flatmates or attending the fresher’s fair. My advice – don’t be scared to enjoy yourself.
I was the first person to move into the flat in my halls and had a stressful wait for my other seven flatmates to arrive. I remember one of my flatmates locking himself in his room for a couple of hours before we managed to coax him out. Discovering that we all had bought Fresher’s wristbands, we decided to have a party in the flat before heading off to an official university event. Having broken the weird silences between us, we never looked back.
As a VI student, you may be concerned on how best to access your university’s Fresher’s Fair but there are a number of strategies you may consider. You could arrange a sighted guide to help you navigate the individual stalls or you could have the confidence to go on your own and approach each stand and make most of the whole experience. This is the event where all students get to find out about and join societies and learn about opportunities available at the university.
I chose to have a sighted guide who described the different stalls to me and helped me register with the societies l wished to join. This is one event I suggest you don’t miss.
Most universities have a Student Union (SU) dedicated to the social and academic support of its student membership. Being a part of the Student Union will allow you to hear about any opportunities or events that your university has organised.
If you are interested in volunteering to enhance your CV, the SU will be able to help. I volunteered at a local farm and spent a couple of days each year working with the local community to plant trees and harvest their crops.
Paid work experience
Universities will always have casual work opportunities advertised. Remember, accessing these opportunities will be dependent on your ability to explain your visual impairment to the relevant individuals. Doing paid casual work will also allow you to meet new students and form a new social group of friends.
During my second and third year, l worked at my university’s International Student Support Office as an International Student Support Guide for three consecutive student orientation programmes. While this initially forced me out of my comfort zone, I relished the experience that I know contributed to my personal self-development.
Even before starting university, l wanted to study abroad. I also determined that my visual impairment would not become a barrier that prevents me from achieving my dreams. I have since completed two short study courses abroad. I spent two weeks in Barcelona learning Spanish and ten days on a student exchange programme with the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) in North Carolina, USA. Although both were challenging experiences, l can definitely say that l am very grateful to have had the confidence to accomplish such meaningful experiences that have positively shaped my character and personality.
I appreciate that foreign study is not for everyone but as a VI student, if you wish to study aboard, I would recommend that you speak with a member of your university’s Study Abroad Office. You could also speak with your lecturers to see if they know of any universities that match with your course and have the required accessibility support measures in place.
If you have been to university yourself and have some advice to share, we would love to hear from you in the comments at the end of this article.