November 15, 2009

Blind Student Breaks Down Barriers

Call VSU sophomore Andrea Jenkins "handicapped" because of her blindness, and she may just have to bake you bacon-wrapped chicken in a mushroom glaze or read you a few books in French or Spanish. With a 3.8 GPA and dreams of living abroad, the Spanish major is doing just fine. Jenkins said the word "handicapped" is not in her vocabulary.

“While it may be a nuisance, being blind is not a handicap,” the 21-year-old said. “Certainly, I have challenges, but don’t we all? I am just as capable as anyone else. I may have to work extra hard to accomplish tasks, but I get the job done.”

The Mayor’s Council for Persons with Disabilities recognized Jenkins as Outstanding Student of the Year at the council’s 16th Annual Awards and Recognition Banquet, which the VSU Access Office for Students with Disabilities co-sponsored.

“The award symbolized to me the work I have done to break down barriers and educate people that blindness isn’t something to be pitied,” said Jenkins, who has been blind since her premature birth. “Because people seem to have lower expectations of blind people, I have pushed myself to take the toughest classes, learn to cook, walk without assistance. All these things have made me a stronger person, one that will hopefully make a big difference in the world.”

Jenkins learned at a young age that success would only come with long hours and an ability to overcome prejudice. In the fourth grade, Jenkins worked for weeks after school to learn how to write her name. When she penned out those six letters to surprise the teacher, Jenkins was chastised for having someone else write her name. The experience has become a driving force in her life -- reminding her to push through barriers and prove she is capable of greatness.

“There is a 70 percent unemployment rate among blind people, and that is just not acceptable,” said Jenkins, who wants to work as a language interpreter for the government. “With proper independent-living instruction, blind people can live normal lives and contribute greatly to society. The only obstacle is people’s misconceptions.”

Eight-months at a training center for the blind provided Jenkins with the tools needed to cross the street, cook meals from scratch and navigate through various other aspects of life. Most obstacles are overcome with a brail label maker and voice activated technologies. Repetition and memory maps of campus aid Jenkins as she makes her way from class to class. Every once in a while, she will ask for a helping hand.

“I was here for Governor’s Honors, and I wore a pair of capris with a shirt that was comfortable, but I forgot the color. I asked my roommate, and she said I looked great. I got downstairs, and one of my friends was like, ‘Andrea, that shirt doesn’t coordinate,’” Jenkins said. “I need honesty in my life. People are always afraid to ask me questions about blindness or tell me the truth when I ask them a question. That is definitely one of my pet peeves.”

The Cairo. Ga., native said she plans to graduate by 2012. A mission trip to Mexico with area church New Covenant convinced her that traveling is definitely in her future. Jenkins said she dreams of living among the vibrant, close-knit cultures of either Spain or Argentina, and using her language education to work as an interpreter and engage in mission work.

“I just want to be productive and make a difference in the world,” she said. “Maybe because I had to grow up fast and work so hard, I cannot stand when people don’t use their talents and work toward a goal. I have big goals in life, and I will do everything in my power to accomplish them.”

When she isn’t studying or engaged in church activities, Jenkins enjoys reading, writing poetry and songs, and enjoying a cup of coffee with friends.

The Access Office -- which provides disabled students equal access to campus programs and activities -- nominated Jenkins for the city’s outstanding student award, which is given to a post-secondary student who goes above and beyond what is required of them in coursework and extra curricular activities. In its recommendation, the office noted Jenkins dedication to learning, positive attitude and academic accomplishments. The Mayor’s Council for Person’s with Disabilities, made up of service providers and disabled residents, advises the city about means to improve the quality of life for citizens with disabilities.

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