Like most in this world I was not born blind. Similarly, the years of elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate education, were all filled with clear sight which neither required contact lenses or glasses. However, less than a year after arriving in Tallahassee for graduate school, this would all change.
When I arrived at Colorado State University, (CSU) I, like most first year students, was excited and nervous to begin a new chapter in life. The previous years of high school were filled with athletics such as cross country and wrestling, activities like student council, and many high quality relationships. Upon graduating from high school, I felt on top of the world! Not long after this, the transition from high school to college, from home to foreign, from senior to freshman, and from being a big fish in a little pond, to a little fish in a big pond, transitioning from familiar to new people, made my first year at CSU look starkly different than my preconceived ideas.
I was in a new city, at a new school, and was no longer saturated in activities or athletics, both of which gave my life a known structure and others with which to be in community. Although my life looked and felt different, I did not seek to remedy this, as I was adapting to my new surroundings and enjoying the newness of the college experience. In retrospect, this “honeymoon period” worked well enough during the first year, but upon entering my second year, the lack of a major, minimal professional connections on campus, and absolutely no involvement within the university, left me with a lack of authentic purpose, and a feeling like I was living a stranger’s life.
These feelings were foreign to me, and instead of introspectively reflecting on how I could change my life, I believed my circumstances to be the fault of the institution. After a series of fun filled trips to visit friends attending the University of Kansas, my feelings were confirmed that I was not at the right institution. I made the decision to begin the process of transferring schools.
During this time period, I noticed a poster around campus with information regarding how to apply to become an orientation leader. I had enjoyed my orientation quite a bit and as a last ditch effort to find a home, I went out on a limb and applied. With no prior campus involvement, I resolved to give my all throughout the interview process, and was selected to be a CSU Orientation Leader for the 2011 summer. I later found out that those who were interviewing me saw a young student with lots of potential, and decided to take a chance on him.
In my euphoria for being accepted into the position, I also applied and was accepted to become a resident assistant for the 2011 – 2012 year. These were two opportunities that morphed my world into something entirely unexpected.
These two experiences allowed for me to make numerous quality relationships among peers and staff, improve my academics, ignite a passion in my soul for the institution, and most importantly give me purpose. Instead of transferring, I transformed.
The sharp disparity between who I was and who I had become was one of the greatest feelings I had ever experienced. To have been in a place so low, to finding a deep inner purpose, allowed for a perspective alteration on life and higher education. I was on a path to graduate with a degree in secondary social studies education, but my sights were set to pursue this newfound passion of serving students in higher education. I dreamed of ultimately being in the same role as those who had offered me opportunities and given me a chance, so that I might do the same for other lost students one day.
I began working with my campus mentor, to research and determine which graduate schools would be the best fit to obtain my master’s in student affairs and higher education.
Following the application and interview process, I was accepted and offered an assistantship at Florida State University (FSU).
In May of 2013 I graduated from CSU, and three months later, made the drive from the mountains I had known for the last 16 years, to the sauna-like weather which comes with living in the panhandle of Florida.
My first year at FSU was everything I had hoped for and more. All the hard work I had put into getting into this institution created a deep pride and sense of school spirit within me. I truly enjoyed the work I was doing, felt as though I was having a positive impact on student’s lives, and most importantly, I was able to create community both within my graduate cohort as well as within the Tallahassee community. These feelings led me to know that I had made the right decision to pursue the field of higher education, and FSU was the school which would provide me with the experiences and education to have success.
During the Spring of 2014, I applied for and accepted an internship to work with the University of Delaware’s (UD) orientation team over the summer. My journey within the field of student affairs had come full circle. Instead of being an orientation leader as I was three years prior, I would be the staff member working with the UD orientation leaders. I felt on top of the world as my passions were being aligned with experiences and opportunities.
In May of 2014 I packed up my car in Tallahassee, and began the trek North to Newark, Delaware.
Shortly after arriving that May, I spent some time getting settled, exploring the area, and preparing for the summer. Then, it was time for the training to begin. The team was learning everything they needed to know for the upcoming orientation sessions filled with new students and their loved ones. I had become quite fond of these students as they reminded me of my previous orientation leader teams. Our days were filled with learning, laughter, and games. I was content.
Around this time, I started noticing some changes in my ability to see. While driving, I began to have difficulty discerning the colors at the traffic stops, seeing small print on my phone, computer, and papers became impossible to read without it being closer and closer to my face. As previously mentioned, up until this point, my sight had been superb, with no need for glasses or contacts. With this no longer being the case, I decided that it was finally time for me to get glasses. I scheduled an appointment with an optometrist in the area and informed my parents about what was happening. I went to the appointment, and after conducting numerous tests, the optometrist determined that my optic nerve was swollen and that glasses would not remove this issue. I was then referred to a neurologist in order to hopefully explain the reasoning behind the swollen optic nerve. There was no reason for concern at this time, as I fully believed this malady to be curable.
Following my initial optometrist appointment, and prior to my neurologist visit, I called my parents in Colorado to let them know what was going on. Over the phone, both of their attitudes towards this situation were positive and optimistic. At least this is what I thought then. Now, over three years later, I have been made aware just how much my parents were worried. When doing a Google search for swollen optic nerve, some of the top results included brain tumors and multiple sclerosis. Thankfully, earlier that Spring when I had been made aware of my summer internship at UD, my parents had planned a 4th of July weekend with myself, youngest brother, and both of them in Washington D.C.. They anxiously awaited my neurologist appointment which took place prior to their arrival on July 1st, but they were grateful to be flying to me as my vision continued to decrease.
At this point, I had discovered the decrease of vision to only be occurring in my left eye. If I needed to read something of smaller print I would close my left eye, as though I was looking through a microscope.
During my neurologist appointment in late June, numerous test were conducted and blood was drawn in order to try and figure out what was happening to me. The neurologist believed I might have optic neuritis, which is an inflammation of the optic nerve, and is treated with heavy steroids. I was prescribed the heaviest dose of oral steroids, and instructed to take 20 pills three times a day. I left this visit believing that this would be the fix to my decreasing ability to see. I was still optimistic, which was an attitude that shielded me from considering that this was just the beginning.
As I began my regimen of 60 pills a day, I quickly realized that a side effect of these heavy steroids was the hiccups. Although hiccups once or twice in a day doesn’t seem like an issue, hiccups 20 – 30 times a day is annoying, frightening, and painful. I tried every trick to rid myself of these fits, and discovered that spoonfuls of peanut butter would make the spasms pause. I began to carry a jar of peanut butter in my backpack as I continued to fulfill my responsibilities on campus.
Once, the hiccups struck, and I was at my wit’s end with these non-stop convulsions. I found an empty classroom, laid down on the cold tile, and cried. I was once woken up in the middle of the night by the painful hiccups. My open hand began hitting my mattress over and over again with tears streaming down my face. Through my tears and anger, I begrudgingly made my way to the overused peanut butter jar. The hiccups had gripped my body over 20 times this day. As a result, I had gone through an entire jar of Jif in under 24 hours. The nutty and distinct smell caused a panic and fresh set of tears to come over me. As the substance touched my lips and tongue, my hands began to shake and body became tense as I wanted nothing more than to reject it. The difficulty I had in chewing and swallowing that thick, chunky consistency made me want to gag. I wanted this nightmare to be over. As the steroid prescription came to a close, so too did the fever of hiccups and it was no longer necessary for me to consume copious amounts of peanut butter.
At my follow-up neurologist appointment, instead of being informed that the steroids had began to solve this problem, I was told that my vision had worsened since the previous visit. The neurologist ordered an MRI because they believed the swelling of the optic nerves could be due to a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis. When I heard these words, I was not overcome with emotion as one might expect. This might have been because I was in the first stage of grief, denial. Or maybe, my optimism and positive attitude convinced myself that there was no way I had either of these intimidating conditions. Mainly, I just wanted answers. The appointment would take place on July 2, 2014.
My family arrived the day before the MRI appointment. My stupidity, denial, and pride forced me to believe that my sight was still at a high enough level to get behind the wheel of my car; so I drove 45 minutes to the Philadelphia airport to pick them up.
As the area and airport were unfamiliar to me, I had printed directions and would also use my phone. Driving through town presented no problems, but as I sped onto the highway the task became immensely more difficult. I was unable to read any of the highway markers or signs. My knuckles became white as I realized my inability to distinguish if the vehicles ahead of me were applying their brakes until our cars were much closer than I felt comfortable with. I quickly realized that I was in over my head.
Then the unthinkable happened. The phone which had been my guide and lifeline stopped working. Without being able to read any highway signage, my printed directions were useless. This ride from hell was more nerve wracking than any rollercoaster I had ever been on, and I was the one behind the wheel. Adrenaline kicked in as my heart rate increased, and sweat covered my forehead. All of my senses seemed to evacuate my being, so that the minimal vision that remained could be put on overdrive. In my desperation, I attempted to call some of the students I was working with in a hope they would be able to assist. The anxiety and fear became verbal as prayers left my mouth, accompanied with shouts of anger. After restarting my phone multiple times, the navigation began to magically work again. Somehow, against the odds, I escaped this dangerous situation I had placed myself in. My car arrived at the airport and my dad took over the wheel. I was grateful to have arrived safely, but was unaware this would be the last time I would drive my car.
The next day, we went in for the MRI. My parents were quite nervous as I was completing the scan, but kept a calm and cool front. Their attitude coupled with my denial and optimism allowed for me to continue believing everything would work out once we knew what was going on.
On the morning of July 3rd, I was woken up by a call from the neurologist. He explained that the imaging from the MRI came back completely normal. This confirmed that a brain tumor and multiple sclerosis were not the causes of my swollen optic nerves and rapid loss of vision. He continued by saying, there was nothing more he could do for me, as all avenues had been exhausted. The neurologist explained that, he had called a neuro ophthalmologist, someone who specializes in visual problems related to the nervous system, at the Wills Eye Center in Philadelphia. My appointment needed to be this day, as the specialist was flying to Europe the following day and wouldn’t be back for over a month.
My dad and I immediately hopped in the car and, as I was no longer able to drive, he drove us to the hospital. We arrived early that morning, and jumped into a series of eye probing examinations. My eyes were poked, dilated, zoomed in on, photographed, and blood drawn.
My dad sat and watched as I completed the simple examination of reading letters, one by one from the chart, and for the first time was able to witness the deterioration of my sight. I sat in the chair and placed something over my left eye and was able to read all of the letters on the chart with sufficient results. Upon switching the device used to block the sight from one eye to the other, I was not able to read any of the letters on the chart. I would squint, open my eye wide, and attempt to use my peripheral vision, all to no avail.
In the late afternoon, my dad and I sat down with the specialist. The room we occupied was cramped. I sat in a green medical chair with one of those metal places for your feet and a cushioning which was covered by a vinyl material which is easy to wipe down and sterilize. The specialist sat in a rolling chair which was way too small for him at my one o’ clock. My dad sat directly to my right in a foldable chair designed for guests. He had a notepad with him and had questions ready to ask as well as fresh sheets for notes. The specialist began to explain that I had a hereditary disease known as Lebers Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON). He explained that this disease affects mostly males, and usually presents itself between ages 20 – 40 (I was 23). He detailed that the minor vision loss I was experiencing, would continue until I had lost the majority of my sight. He concluded with the most devastating news of all: there was no known cure or treatment for LHON.
Tears welled up in my eyes as all of this news was being delivered, and the final statement was like a punch in the gut that broke the dam. I broke down. I reached for my dad, who had also began to cry.
I became numb. My hearing stopped working, my mouth became dry, the heat and weight of my dad’s hand was all I felt. My dad asked some clarifying questions, was given very little optimistic news, and we left. We walked to my car, which I had driven north to Delaware from Florida, and thousands of other times, from places to place, but would never be able to do again. I sat down in the passenger seat, closed the door, and absolutely crumbled. My dad reached over, pulled me into his arms, while also crying, and providing words of encouragement. He did his best to comfort and be my father, while also struggling with the news his eldest son had just received.
The return drive was silent, but uncomfortably loud between my ears. My mind was racing with emotions and questions, none of which I had an answer for. Sometime after receiving the diagnosis, my dad had informed my anxiously awaiting mother of the news. Upon arriving back to her, I fell into her arms, and felt as vulnerable and scared as a child. Her motherly instincts took over as she wanted to do anything possible to protect me, and make things better if they were hurt. She began to research everything possible about LHON, and started describing various research articles, Youtube videos, and Facebook groups. I did my best to listen, but the weight of emotions were too much to bear.
I felt as though I had been told that a loved one had stage four cancer, and only a few months to live. If this news were associated with anyone, I would be devastated, but eventually be able to say goodbye and move forward. Death is a part of life when it comes to living creatures; but no one could have prepared me for the death of a sense. My eyes were more than a loved one. We had spent more time together than any friend or family member. And their death was not one which came with a funeral and moving on; rather, I would be haunted by their demise everyday when I awoke.
My chest felt heavy, and mind became overwhelmed with unanswerable questions. All of the medical examinations, diagnosis, and emotions which followed made me feel like a balloon which had been inflated to its limits. I needed to release some of the air. I left my parents and went outside to call my best friend David who lived in Chicago. The second I heard his voice, the air rushed from the balloon. With every attempt to speak, my voice cracked, tears and snot covered my face, and I began to hyperventilate. Hearing the diagnosis from the mouth of the doctor was one thing, but forcing my own voice to utter those words, and hearing myself say it, made this nightmare all the more real. I was eventually able to calm down enough to share the diagnosis with him. The first words out of his mouth were, “Do you need me to move to Tallahassee to be with you next year?” This display of genuine care and loyalty pushed me over the edge again as the flood of emotions returned. I laid down on the soft grass because I felt too weak to stand.
My parents asked if we should stay in Delaware. But I needed to escape, so recommended we should continue with our scheduled 4th of July trip to Washington D.C.. The trip was a way to escape from everything that had just happened. I will never forget the towering monuments, beautiful museums, and outstanding displays of fireworks we were able to view on the National Mall.
As our trip came to an end, my family was scheduled to fly home to Colorado, whereas I would be getting on a Megabus to transport me back to Delaware. As we arrived at Union Station, not only was my time with my family coming to a close, so too was the illusion of happiness that came with the 4th of July family vacation in Washington D.C.. We soon came to the area where I went one way, and they the other. I remember feeling as though a giant boulder began tumbling down the mountain a few days prior, but had not crushed me because I had my family to hold its weight. I could still feel it looming over my helpless body. As I hugged each of them, I held the embrace for as long as I could. The warmth and touch of my loved ones was the one constant known in my new world of uncertainty. The sounds of others conversing, the bustle of a bus station, and the rumbling of engines, all around me fell silent as I was tightly held in the arms of my mother and father. Tears welled in my eyes as the departure time grew ever nearer.
There was so much ambiguity ahead, and not having my family with me was terrifying. This was the first of many times my loved ones would leave, even though we were all unsure of how I would fare alone.
I returned to UD, and continued with the responsibilities of my internship, while everyday my ability to see decreased. By late July, I was no longer able to read the small print on my cellphone no matter how close it was to my face. As my sight continued to decrease, so too did my optimism and outlook on life. My thoughts were antagonized by questions such as: Would I be able to return to graduate school to finish my degree? If so, how would I complete readings and assignments? Could I serve as a high performing and capable team member at work? How would I travel to work, school, or anywhere else without being able to drive? What kind of a life would I have being blind? Who would hire me? Would I be supported through this dark time? Why was this happening to me?
Since my parent’s departure, we had been frequently speaking over the phone and checking in. I would ask them these questions and many more, but the clock was ticking and just like my sight, I was running out of time to make some gigantic life decisions.
My dad describes this pivotal time below:
Aaron was asking me what I thought he should do about returning to school and life in general. How do you answer a question like that?
I agonized as to what to say….what to do….how to keep treating him as my son and yet also as an adult. I wanted him to know that he could still do things. That life is what you make of it. That you do have choices. But how?
Here I am trying to answer my son’s question as to what he thought he should do. Do I tell him to come home? Do I tell him to go back to school? Do I tell him to “take a break” and finish school later? What should I tell him about his life? All answers seemed hollow and inadequate. After much praying and conversing with my wife, Marie, and trying to make sense of it all, I felt that I might finally be able to say something that might be helpful.
I said, through many tears, to Aaron that he has a choice to make. And it’s not unlike the same choice that really everyone needs to make sometime in their life…. it’s just that you are being forced to make it right now versus having the luxury to consider it in the future. I said, “No one would blame you if you wished to move home. You’ve been dealt a “bad hand”. In fact, no one would even think it out-of-the-ordinary if you became bitter…. angry… depressed…. maybe even drinking a great deal, or even other things. This sucks! But this is not the only choice you have. You could be “that person” whom others look to in amazement as to how you have overcome so much to be a role model. You could be like Stephen Hawking, the world’s greatest theoretical physicist, yet unable to move and talk for more than 40 years. You could be like Amy Purdy, the woman who has no legs yet is still on “Dancing with the Stars”. You could be that person who seems to overcome the biggest adversity and comes out a hero. But just know that whichever choice you make, it will be the right one. No matter what you decide I will support you 100%, and you will always be my son who I love dearly.
This talk was followed by calls to my roommates, employer, and faculty. With each call, my confidence and optimism began to grow. Each person I spoke with assured me that they would be there to help me along the way, and that we would be able to make this work. One person I spoke to who had a major role in my decision of whether to return to school or not was Rashad. He had graduated from the masters program I was in a few months prior, and was currently working for the Florida Division of Blind Services in Tallahassee. Rashad was born with a visual impairment. We spoke many times, as I felt comfortable confiding in someone who understood more about this world I was entering. Rashad’s current job was to work with students who were blind or visually impaired to advocate for and assist in their success. He provided both empathetic emotional support as well as resources which would aid in my success.
With all of this support, the denial of how serious this was, anticipating how much worse my sight would get, and my ignorance of the difficulties that awaited me, I resolved to take a step forward without knowing if there would be ground when my foot landed.
My dad flew from Colorado back to Delaware, and drove my car and I back down to the Sunshine State. As we drove down the east coast, the vehicles next to me were indistinguishable. A year ago, my dad and I had driven to Tallahassee from Colorado. Now, we arrived in the same city, in the same car, but the circumstances had drastically changed.
During the short time he had in Tallahassee, my dad did as much as he could to ensure I was taken care of. There is no guide book for what to do when you are going blind, so neither of us knew what needed to be done. I cannot even begin to comprehend how difficult it must have been for my dad to leave me this time. My sight had been decreasing for the past six weeks, and neither of us were sure when, if ever, it would end. The reality of what some of this next year would entail, began to hit me as my dad and I shared a long, tear filled, embrace as he left me in Florida, and flew back to Colorado. I was alone, with my closest family being 1,500 miles away. My job at the University, classes, and everyday life were difficult enough with full vision. On top of this, would be learning how to live a life where everyday came with less vision than the last, an inability to drive, and sorting through the emotions which came with all of this.
During my summer in Delaware, prior to and during the beginning stages of my vision loss, I had became friends with the incoming first-year students of the FSU Higher Education program on social media. There was one student in particular who I had remembered from the Spring, when the admitted students had visited campus to interview for assistantships. This student was Kate Morales. Kate had caught my attention because of her remarkable beauty. In true millennial fashion, I became Facebook and Instagram friends with Kate. This was followed by “liking” her social media posts as a means of saying, “I think you are attractive and seem like a pretty groovy person”. Over the summer, Kate began to return the “likes,” and I felt as though the attraction was mutual (as only a millennial would). Upon returning to Tallahassee in the Fall, I noticed that Kate had posted a Facebook status which related that she had just signed up for the Tallahassee Half-Marathon. Having completed the Tallahassee Marathon myself the year prior, I took a bold step and reached out to Kate. I shared that I had saw that she had signed up for the race, and that if she ever wanted a running partner to just let me know. A couple of days later Kate and I were on our first run together. I still had enough vision to be able to run with her, and didn’t need to mention my diagnosis. I actively avoided sharing this news, as I had just met Kate and did not want to scare her away.
The second time we were together, Kate could tell that something was going on, and I was forced to share with her what was happening to me. Sharing this news with someone you have been in a relationship with or married to for many years would rock the relationship, and even be reason enough to break up a happy couple. A drastic life change such as losing your vision, is not only difficult for the person going through the loss of their sight, but also for everyone around them. Now, I was sharing this news with someone I had just met, and hoping that this would not be a deal breaker.
When I shared my diagnosis with Kate, her reaction was far from anything I would have ever expected. Her first words were: “This is perfect! I am a member of Delta Gamma, and our philanthropy works directly with Service for Sight, an organization dedicated to the blind and visually impaired communities.” I was stunned, and also relieved that this amazing woman was in my life.
Fast forward to September 25, 2014, I took one more bold step and asked Kate to be my partner. Thankfully, she said yes. Even though neither of us were aware of all of the emotional and physical obstacles which were to come, we made the decision to begin a relationship.
Beginning a relationship with Kate was a crucial component in being able to work through everything else happening in my life. As I reflect on the decision of beginning a relationship, during the most uncertain time of my life, I am now keenly aware of just how important this relationship was during that time. Having a new partner both allowed me the support when times were tough or I needed assistance with something, as well as the opportunity to escape the negative and pessimistic thoughts which attacked when I was alone. Kate never complained about always being the one to drive us around, she took care of me while at the same time not treating me like a child. We didn’t spend excessive amounts of time talking about my sight, and we began inventing ways to navigate this experience. We were learning how to be blind together.
Along with Kate, there were also numerous other changes I was experiencing as I returned to FSU that Fall. I registered with the Student Disability Resource Center on Florida State’s campus. Working with this office would allow me to have a letter explaining the accommodations I needed from my professors as well as provide the emotional and logistical support necessary during this transition. Setting my pride aside, and recognizing the support I would need during this time was difficult. Although I am now proud of my disability, at the time, being anything less than capable and independent made me feel scared and inferior.
Along with this, my schedule became much more limited. I was no longer able to go to work, class, and other places when I chose. Instead, I was forced to be on the schedule of others. During the Fall, as I was still learning how to navigate the world with decreasing vision. I relied on transportation from others. My roommate would drive me to work every morning, my other roommate would assist me in getting to and from the grocery store, Kate would assist in a majority of other transportation, and countless others both from my classes and around the university would assist me in getting where I needed to go. I learned where the bus stops were in relation to my work and home, but rarely used this option, and would sometimes even use taxis. By the middle of the semester, my ability to see had gotten to a point where walking alone became dangerous and nerve racking as I was unable to tell where I was or if stairs were approaching.
As my ability to see was decreasing daily, I began to utilize technologies which assisted in making both work and school more manageable. Rashad and the Division of Blind Services were able to assist me in obtaining a CCTV, (a machine which allows you to place documents under it, and similar to an overhead projector projecting images onto a wall, but instead projecting the document onto the screen in front of the viewer with an ability to zoom in and out) which greatly assisted in both work and schoolwork. Along with this, I began using a software which allowed me to zoom in really close on my laptop. With both of these devices, I would get my face about one centimeter away, essentially touching the screen, and attempt to navigate. With my laptop, zooming in with my face touching the screen worked for awhile, and as my vision continued to spiral downward, I began to use a program that would read the text which my mouse was over out loud to me. This worked well enough, but was painfully tedious. Since I had only been navigating a computer one way my entire life, I had no other ideas regarding how to make work, classwork, and life with technology more simple. On average, anytime I was forced to use technology, it took me three times as long to do even the most simple of tasks.
Kate, my family, and others would spend a great deal of time assisting in helping me with finding the research articles which were necessary for my papers, reading my textbooks while I listened, and a host of other forms of academic assistance so that I did not fall behind. I did everything in my power to do as much as I was able to, but slowly learned that if I was going to make it to graduation, that I would need to put my ego aside and ask for more help. Along with this, the help which I needed extended beyond academics, and in my weakness I was carried by those around me.
Throughout the academic year I learned how to use a phone and a computer using no visual functions, and using screen reading technologies instead. I also participated in numerous lessons with instructors on how to properly use a white cane. I was in graduate school obtaining my master’s while at the same time learning how to use a computer and walk independently.
Although the time and effort which came with re-learning how to use a computer and phone as well as how to walk around and navigate this world were at times frustrating and stressful, both of these tools ultimately gave me a large part of my independence back. As time progressed, and other parts of my life became normal, I learned how to live within my circumstances, not despite them. The Fall and Spring semesters were filled with stress and difficulty, but also great moments of joy. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for so many of the aspects of my life which I had previously taken for granted. These included simple tasks such as the ability to cook, distinguish patterns, walk around independently, use a cell phone, or deeper elements of time spent with someone I loved.
During the 2014 – 2015 academic year, I truly began to have a deeper appreciation for the field of work I had decided to pursue through my graduate program at FSU. Student affairs, and the majority of those who work in the field, place a high value on accessibility and inclusion. When I was at my most vulnerable, not only was I accommodated for through student affairs offices such as the Student Disability Resource Center, but more importantly, I was emotionally supported. Professionals who worked around campus spent time with me over coffee on campus, talking to me, and providing a shoulder to cry on. My faculty worked with me to make assignments accessible and were more than understanding when it came to my situation. The other students within my graduate program provided warm embraces when the emotional weight became too much to bear, while also doing their best to not treat me differently. The amount of reinforcements provided to me concerning my academics, life needs, and emotions gave me the strength to not collapse from the strains I felt. Without the support and guidance from all those around me, I would never have been able to make it through to graduation. Giving this gift is one of the foundational reasons that student affairs exists.
Institutions of higher education, which I had previously navigated with ease, are places not only to learn academically and from one’s coursework, but also to grow in one’s understanding of themselves and the world we occupy. This journey through one’s education is filled with experiences and interactions both in and out of the classroom which shape the holistic well-being of an individual. For some, navigating this path and journey through life is simple. There were points during my own time at CSU and FSU where this was true for me, but there were other times where this was not the case. When I felt lost, scared, or in an identity crisis during my undergraduate education, student affairs was there to support and challenge me while also providing a sense of community and purpose. When everything I had previously known went out the window with the loss of my sight, student affairs and those within the field provided the means and support to make my dream of finishing what I had started a reality. Without student affairs and those who care so deeply about every student on a campus, I would not have made it out of the dark valley I was in, and ultimately been set on the path to be able to discover my authentic purpose in this world.
I am in this world, and a part of this work, to advocate for, support, and care for students and people in order for them to make it to where they are going, just as others have done and continue to do for me. When I felt lost and scared at CSU, it forced me to seek comfort and community from opportunities within a campus, and that struggle was all a part of a greater plan from a higher power. With the loss of my sight a few years away, I was placed on a path to work in a field that would support me through the journey, and allow me to do the same work and support others down the road. Eight years ago, when I moved into my residence hall as a first-year student, I had no idea who I was or where my life would take me. Now, nine years later, I have never left higher education, and although my physical sight is impaired, I can clearly see who I am and why I am on this earth better than ever before.
That Spring of 2015, right before I graduated, I was offered a full time position at Virginia Tech working my dream job within student conduct. In this role, I was able to spend time helping students along their own journeys in the times when all might seem lost for them. I truly do not believe I would have been offered the position, had I not lost my sight. The maturity and altered perspective I gained through this experience, shined through, and gave those at VT the confidence to hire someone who had lost his sight 9 months prior. I loved every minute of working for this institution, and am grateful for the community which supported me as I learned more about what this new identity meant.
In November of 2017, after two and a half years of a long-distance relationship with Kate, we were finally able to be reunited. I accepted a job at Ohio State University where I am still able to live out my passions and use my education to assist students along their journeys.
Kate graduated from FSU in the spring of 2016, and is now working for the Delta Gamma foundation in Columbus, Ohio. In this role, she works with the blind and visually impaired community at events, such as the Boston Marathon, to ensure that the blind and visually impaired runners and their guides are comfortable and well taken care of.
1000 days after September 25, 2014, (when I asked Kate to be my girlfriend) was June 21, 2017. This was the day I asked her to be my wife. I now tell my story to audiences all over the country, and share with them the lessons we can all learn through what happened to me. I have been blessed enough to have been able to speak to audiences at Virginia Tech, Fordham University, in New York City, the University of Wyoming, and Roanoke Valley Crossfit. In the spring of 2016, I launched my website Aaronreistad.com
as a way to share my thoughts and feelings through blogs, videos, and pictures. My mission is to have something I say, write, or do to have a positive impact on someone’s life.
I never would have imagined that less than three.5 years after receiving my diagnosis that I would be where I am today; and I would not be here without all of those who have given so much to return back what was lost.