The chair of the scholarship committee, Cayte Mendez, introduced the 2019 class with these remarks:
Good morning, Mr. President and members of the board. It is my privilege to present to you today the thirty finalists in the 2019 National Federation of the Blind scholarship class. These folks hail from across the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. They have been selected because of their scholastic aptitude and leadership, and it is my honor to let them speak to you today. I will give you their full names, the state that they are hailing from (their home state), the state where they are attending school, and their vocational goals.
Amy Albin, New Jersey, New Jersey, Industrial Psychology: Hello, and thank you all for making this day possible. In psychology we study cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and ingroup-outgroup bias that affect our attitudes. My psychology major will give me the academic background to do what I’ve been doing already for years: promoting high expectations of blind people. Thank you.
Makayla Bouchea, Georgia, Georgia, Business and Human Resources: Good morning, everybody. I’m just going to start out by saying human resources is not only hiring, firing, and training. It's also the ability to make sure that everybody has the resources they need to be successful in the workplace. As someone who was not given accommodations and had to go find her own technology throughout school, I don’t want people to have to stress about that in the workplace. I talk about being a navel science 1-4 cadet all the time, because I was a big part of NJROTC. That program helped me to become a leader, a follower, and taking back all the information that I have learned from this convention to Georgia will definitely help.
Tracy Boyd, Oregon, Oregon, Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Good morning, Federation family. I am so grateful to be here and to be a part of this 2019 scholarship class. I have been a member of the National Federation for the past five years, and this organization has helped me raise the bar for myself. I am in my final year of my master’s program, and I’m excited to reach my goal to work with blind veterans. Thank you.
Kaden Calahan, New Mexico, New Mexico, High School Teacher: Good morning, Federation family. It is an honor and a privilege to be here today. One of the things that I think about as I go into education is the value and importance of mentorship and learning from others. I have tremendous mentors in the National Federation of the Blind, tremendous people who push the expectations higher every day. I feel confident now—this is my third major change—that education is the place I want to be. I want to push that knowledge on to those that I can help most. Thank you.
Rashid Dème, Michigan, Michigan, Human Rights or International Law: Good morning, marhaban, na nga def, bonjour. Aside from education, a portion of my time is spent advocating for equity, not only for individuals with disabilities but other identities as well. I work with local social justice initiatives learning about interfunctionalities of programs. With my compassion for humanity I truly believe in helping people help themselves. Thank you.
Eric Duffy, Ohio, Ohio, Vocational Rehabilitation Administration: Good morning, fellow Federationists. Thirty-five years ago I became a part of the Federation family. At a very young age you helped me begin to define my understanding of what blindness is and what it is not, and that is what I will take into my career as a rehabilitation professional—our understanding of blindness. Together we will build a great agency somewhere in this country.
Skye Dunfield, Nevada, Nevada, Victim Advocate: Hi, everyone, and thank you so much for having us here as a scholarship class. You know, when I was first going to come to this convention, I wrote out a whole spiel. And then I came here, and I learned something: I learned that I have a lot to learn, and I have an entire family here to support me, and it’s going to be an amazing resource as I work my way up in my education, my career, and my life. I just want to say thank you so much. Normally I’m nervous, but right now, talking to all of you, I’m not because I know I have my whole family here in front of me. Thank you.
Emily Eagle, Texas, Indiana, Disability Rights Attorney: My desire to be an advocate has been reinforced by two recent experiences: first, my internship with the State Department’s international disability rights team, where I was inspired by international advocates, many of whom were fighting for even the slightest access to an education for those with disabilities. Then there was my involvement in the formation of Notre Dame’s first disability advocacy organization, where it’s been amazing to see the united voices of a very few build such meaningful bridges. However this convention has reminded me that we are so, so far from alone. Thanks y’all.
Amy Hatten, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Rehab Counseling: Good morning, fellow Federationists. As a future rehabilitation counselor, I want to help individuals with disabilities with advocacy, breaking down the barriers, and to find the integrated, competitive employment like this organization has helped me do for myself. I want to bring the love, hope, and determination to all my future consumers and clients like this organization has brought to my life.
Maureen Hayden, Pennsylvania, Texas, Research or Academia in Marine Biology: Good morning, fellow Federationists, or as we say at Texas A&M, howdy. As a doctoral student pursuing my career in marine biology, I hope to work with individuals who are visually impaired or blind in discovering their own passion for STEM careers. I’m already active in this goal as a Learning Ally college success program mentor as well as an industry mentor for the Project POEM program funded by the National Science Foundation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never say never.
Gene Kim, California, California, Engineering: Good morning, fellow Federationists, or as we say in California, hello. I will not lie. Up until last week engineering has been a very daunting task to me, a daunting career that I want to pursue. I doubted myself; I thought I would not be able to do it. After all I’ve only been blind for two-and-a-half years. I don’t know Braille skills yet; I don’t know all of these different tactics that are more efficient. But coming to this convention, which is my first, has given me a complete 180 in that direction. I now have met so many people who have accomplished so many great things, who have been so supportive to me, and who helped me conquer this fear and anxiety. So with this newfound confidence in my own blindness, I am eager to take the challenge that is before me, and I am eager to design technologies that will allow us to live more accessible lives and live the lives that we want, and help me live the life that I want, which is to express and share the love and empowerment that you have given me. Thank you, my new Federation family.
Jenelle Landgraf, Washington, Washington, Therapist: Thank you. Those of us who share the characteristic of blindness are aware of the dominant ableist norms that can lead to feelings of shame. One shame-resilience factor that won’t surprise the Federation family at all is connection with other people who share the same disability. This research has opened a door of understanding for my future patients rather than stigmatizing people as is often done in mental health care. I am passionate about strengthening mental health care services because it impacts all of us. Thank you.
Nina Marranca, New York, New York, Clinical Psychology: Good morning, Federation family. When I was thinking about what to speak about today—which is terrifying—I only have thirty seconds, and I talk way too much—this quote honestly came to mind: “Chase your dreams with a passion that makes it impossible for your fears to keep up." As President Riccobono has said, this is an investment. This is an investment in me, in my future, in my ability to succeed and to represent every single person in this room so that we can live the lives we want. And, honestly, it’s a little terrifying, because it’s like, wow, okay. But honestly it’s a huge honor because not everybody gets to say that they went through this program, and I’m so happy to be here. Thank you guys so much.
Ana Martinez-Larumbe, Louisiana, Louisiana, Social Work: Good morning, guys. Helping others and bringing people closer to Christ are my biggest passions, and if I can combine both, even better. As a social worker I want to help children who have been abused, neglected, or traumatized. I want to get a second degree in divinity, so I’m hoping to open my own facility and help children who are struggling with life situations while at the same time bringing them closer to Christ and share with them the joy of living a life with Him.
Lucas Mebane, North Carolina, North Carolina, Biomedical Engineer: Good morning, Federation family. I’m delighted and honored to receive this award. With biomedical engineering I want to help make people’s lives better by designing new technologies and fulfilling the slogan of the NFB by living the life I want to live. Thank you.
Gerald Meredith, Virginia, Virginia, Professor of Criminal Justice: Good morning, my Federation family. With criminal justice we study theory. I have twenty-five years of practical experience in the field of criminal justice and corrections and security. I want to marry these two, the theory and the practical, and teach criminal justice on the collegiate level and show that these two can work together. Thank you. I am grateful to be here.
Pablo Morales, North Carolina, North Carolina, Business and Management: Good morning, NFB family. I already have a degree in computers. Right now I am a senior student in business and economics, so my goal for the future is to have a master’s in information and technology management. My professional goal is to improve the value of our organization products and services and also make accessibility a competitive advantage.
Kaylee Nielson, Arizona, Massachusetts, Business Journalism: Thank you. About six years ago I became a member of the blind community, and it’s been a learning curve ever since. Skills like advocacy, independence, and creative problem-solving have served me beyond striving for equality. These skills have helped me become editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, president of national honor society, and an admitted student at Wellesley College for the fall. My blindness does not define me, but it is an important part of my story and my narrative. Luckily for me the Federation shares this feeling. I am honored to be here. Thank you.
Erin Olsen, Idaho, Idaho, Instructional Design for Vulnerable Populations: Well, being on the upper end of that age range, I’m going to try to be with my younger class members and try to say "wassup, NFB." My passion has always been knowing people, finding needs, identifying niches, and then trying to find ways to fix them. And I was able to do that for the last twenty years or so. Then I hit a couple little road bumps. One was blindness, and the second, within just a few months, was a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. When I got my act together, I said, “Huh, guess I need some new skills.” So I got some new skills through some excellent training, and then I found my NFB family sitting to my left, the fantastic Idaho affiliate—let's give a shout out Idaho, [cheers] thank you. The skills were the foundation, but my affiliate gave me the support that I needed to get through some pretty rough times and of course introduced me to all of you and the fantastic people on the stage behind me. What I look forward to is continuing with what I call “being a blur,” and yes, there’s multiple meanings to that. But it’s my philosophy and that is for all of us to live beyond living under restrictions. Thank you very much; have a fantastic rest of your convention.
Rachel Ooi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Law: First of all, thank you so much to all who made this possible. I am having such a great time at convention, and it’s only Tuesday. As an intersectionally-diverse person (Singaporean, Japanese, blind, and a woman) I aspire to bring a unique cultural landscape to all aspects of my life. I aspire to be an attorney where I bring an equitable education and equal rights to all those who are underrepresented to help them live the lives they want. I believe that the National Federation of the Blind will help me in this goal.
Amelia Palmer, Idaho, Idaho, Electrical Engineering: To the futures we’ve all chosen, for the independence we fight for, and the dreams of jobs, dreams of grades, the prospects of dependence fade. Together we stand to make our worth known.
Aracely Rosillo, Georgia, Georgia, Vision Rehab Therapist: Hello, everybody. I am currently studying psychology, and I’m pursuing my bachelor’s degree. My career goal is to become an independent contracting vision rehabilitation therapist. First of all because I would love to make my own schedule and not listen to anybody else, but also because it would let me reach out into the immigrant community, something that is really close to my heart as a Latina woman. A lot of people in the immigrant community are unable to receive services like this, so I want to be able to work with them and help them so that they can achieve and be the best they can be. Thank you.
Heather Schey, Rhode Island, Rhode Island, Human Services: Good morning, everybody. I first want to say thank you for this amazing opportunity. I never thought I would be here today. I also want to share that when I started my journey in life—I’m a little bit older than some of the others here, too—I didn’t have a voice. It was hard for me to find my voice, my path in life. So from attending a conference all by myself, not knowing one person a few years ago, that challenged me. I found a little bit of my voice. Then I recently—before I attended this conference—flew away the week before. I was just inducted as the first blind president of my local Lions Club. My job and my human services degree will also help me to give others a voice. I work at an agency that assists people with disabilities to remain independent and living on their own. I am excited to say that with this degree I can actually become more involved one-on-one with the consumers, and that will help me give them more of a voice learning how to advocate for themselves and to continue their life’s journey so that they can have a successful life. Thank you.
Vanessa Sheehan, Arizona, Arizona, Manuscript Editor: Hello. For anyone who does not know what a manuscript editor is, it is a person who works with authors before their book is published. So books are probably one of the most important things in my life. When I lost my vision a few years ago, my first priority was finding a way to read using Braille, BARD, and other accessible methods. I want to be able to help people who are just as passionate about writing as I am to put out books that can make people just as passionate about reading as I am, and I’d like to thank the NFB for helping me to get closer to that goal. Thank you.
Brandon Shin, California, California, Law or PhD in English: I am an imperfectionist; I have had my share of faults both metaphorically and physically. As such, life can be both a journey and a fight. Likewise, life at times cannot just throw you a lemon but can pull the pin and lob a grenade at you. During the aftermath of those explosions we find ourselves having a hard time getting back up. It is never a shame to fall, but it is a shame to fall and never get back up. Life never plays fair, life will never fight fair, and in the words of Brad Williams, “Life is not what should be, but life is what is.” Life should be fair, life should be non-suffering, and everybody should not be blind, not be disabled, not sick. But we are blind, and we are here. I am a Federationist. Life can hit me as much as it wants; I can hit right back. Anything that threatens my development better hit hard because all I’m going to do is get back up and hit six times harder. Thank you.
Derique Simon, South Carolina, South Carolina, Law: Good morning, fellow Federationists. One year ago I was sitting where you guys are now as an LCB STEP student, and I came to a very disturbing discovery with myself: that I want to do better. I wanted to be better than what I was the day before and the week before that. I found amazing mentors who pushed me to think better, think smarter, and I discovered that I wanted to go into law. With law it’s not just for the blind community, it’s for every community, whether they be blind, deaf, etc., etc. And if it wasn’t for my Federation family, I don’t think I’d be here today; so I sincerely thank all of you, the scholarship committee, President Riccobono, and everyone for giving me this wonderful opportunity.
Georgie Sydnor, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Transcriber and Teacher of Blind Students: Federation family! Whew, I’m nervous. I want to be a teacher of blind students because I know the power of high expectations—I don’t believe in it. I know it for a fact. I see it in people around me, I feel it in my own life, and I’m ready to give back to our kids who will become our adults. I’m a very, very proud graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind. I’m very, very proud to serve as the secretary of the Massachusetts affiliate. I’m very proud of the work we do in the Federation. I mean truly—when I was eighteen, nine years ago, the NFB changed my life, and it shapes it every day, and I’m so, so honored to be here. Thank you.
Alicia Ucciferri, Texas, Texas, Civil Rights or Human Rights Attorney: Good morning. I’m planning to study law for largely the same reason that I studied vocal performance before this. I believe that one of the reasons I exist is to communicate reality in ways that are accurate, beautiful, and convincing. Law is a means just like singing was a means. The goal is equity, that every single one of us be on the same playing field in society, that every single person in this room would get to live in a world in which we can entirely participate and genuinely flourish. Thank you Federationists for trusting and enabling me to fight for that alongside you.
Madelyn Walker, Texas, Mississippi, Pharmaceutical Oncology: Good morning, my fellow Federationists. I’m honored to be here in front of you today. When I first lost my vision, I thought my life was over. I only heard what I couldn’t do. But through examples, leadership, and encouragement of people in this organization in our community, I learned that the only thing stopping me was me. So in spite of that statement I organized a community day of service, blood drives, and raised over $60,000 for cancer research. This statement is all to say that I hope to encourage others, as you all have encouraged me, to overcome any obstacle in their path. Thank you.
Ryan Wullschleger, California, California, Attorney: Hello, everyone, my name is Ryan. I’m a little nervous here. I’ve been blind just a few years, and through those couple of years I haven’t met many in the community. I think it’s partially because of me being nervous to maybe even admit that things are different. But since I’ve been at this conference, I’ve been welcomed. People have treated me so well, and this won’t be the last conference. I thank everyone here for that. I thank the committee for accepting me, not just because of the scholarship, but because of you guys. So thank you for everything.
At the banquet Emily Eagle won the $12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship. Here is what she had to say:
Hi, everyone. Thank you so much. I genuinely never thought I would be in this position. I would like to begin by thanking President Riccobono, the scholarship committee, sponsors, and a special thank you to my mentors who made this week seamless and put me at ease. This is my first NFB convention, and in large part it’s my first genuine exposure to the National Federation of the Blind. And to say that this week is transformative is an extreme understatement. I genuinely hope that I can continue to contribute to this organization meaningfully throughout my life. I’m so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, the growth that I’ve experienced, the beautiful friends that I’ve made, and especially for this extremely generous scholarship which is genuinely life changing. [applause] Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much. I genuinely really appreciate it. I really could go on and on about how amazing this experience has been, but I know that no words will be sufficient to express just how incredible it’s been. So I will simply finish by humbly saying thank you to the National Federation of the Blind for enabling me to live the life that I want. Thank you. [applause, cheers]
Following is a complete list of 2019 scholarship finalists and the awards they received. In addition to their scholarship, each student received a plaque and a $1,000 cash award from inventor and futurist Dr. Ray Kurzweil, an Acer Chromebook laptop and a $1,000 cash award from Google, a JAWS or Zoomtext license from Vispero, a $1,500 voucher toward the purchase of a Talking LabQuest from Independence Science, and nine months of service from Aira, for a total award for each winner with a minimum value exceeding $5,000.
$3,000 NFB Scholarship (16): Amy Albin, Kaden Calahan, Amy Hatten, Jenelle Landgraf, Nina Marranca, Lucas Mebane, Gerald Meredith, Pablo Morales, Rachel Ooi, Amelia Palmer, Aracely Rosillo, Heather Schey, Brandon Shin, Derique Simon, Georgie Sydnor, and Ryan Wullschleger
$3,000 Charles and Betty Allen Scholarship: Eric Duffy
$3,000 Dr. Adrienne Asch Memorial Scholarship: Kaylee Nielson
$3,000 Edith R. and Alvin J. Domroe Foundation Scholarship: Ana Martinez Larumbe
$3,000 Janette C. Eyerly Scholarship: Vanessa Sheehan
$3,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Scholarship: Maureen Hayden
$3,000 E.U. and Gene Parker Scholarship: Makayla Bouchea
$5,000 JAWS for Windows Scholarship: Alicia Ucciferri
$5,000 NFB STEM Scholarship: Madelyn Walker
$5,000 Pearson Scholarship: Erin Olsen
$5,000 Mimi and Marvin Sandler Scholarship: Rashid Dème
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in Computer Science: Gene Kim
$8,000 Oracle Scholarship for Excellence in a STEM Field: Tracy Boyd
$10,000 Charles and Melba T. Owen Memorial Scholarship: Skye Dunfield