PhD student Vicky Chen reflects upon her decision to pursue her doctorate in education with a specialization in Language, Literacy, and Technology. Ms. Chen currently is a third year PhD student with research interests in academic writing, extracurricular writing, writing instruction, critical reading and analysis, language acquisition, and students and teachers with disabilities.
“So you’re interested in teaching writing in college?” came the professor’s voice over the phone, just a little hesitant as though unsure how to break the news to me. “You know, getting a PhD in Education isn’t how most people go into teaching writing. Usually, people get degrees in English or Composition...”
I listened patiently to this information, added it to the file drawers of my memory under “careers and job search”, reassessed my plans in light of this addition, and decided that I had still made the right decision. Besides, you won’t get anywhere if you give up on a path you’ve chosen before even starting to walk it just because it looks tough.
This was just one of a number of conversations that I had with schools preceding my arrival at UCI’s School of Education. While I appreciated that particular professor’s subsequent advice and the time he took to try and understand my goals and aspirations, at the same time, many things in my life have been nontraditional, and moving forward often entails a balance between what I want and what is practical, what I know and what I believe is possible.
Imagine seeing the world through a web of vibrations in the air like the shifting web of light on the bottom of a swimming pool. These minor, obscuring distortions radiate outward from a cluster of brightly colored dots that blot out whatever is directly in front of you. This is how I see, or as good an approximation of it as I can manage. I can’t remember what it was like to be able to read regular print, and I have no depth perception. My students laugh and I smile when I tell them that I once tried to converse with a poster, mistaking it for a real human being. They do not fully comprehend what it means to be legally blind—how it affects my life or what challenges it presents—but they understand that I will need to do things differently from their other teachers and that I may need help sometimes, and that’s enough for now. When the paths we walk are a little nontraditional, the support of others can make a world of difference on what is easy and what is difficult, and I think that if I were to choose one thing I appreciate most about being here at UCI’s School of Ed, it is the support and thoughtfulness of the people I have encountered here.
I was startled upon arriving at UCI for the fall quarter of my first year to hear that members of the Disability Services Center staff had met with faculty and staff from my new department upon their request to discuss accommodations and address any questions they might have. I was accustomed to approaching individual professors myself when the need arose and managing accommodations so as to make as small a splash as possible in their lives since past experience had shown me that many people are intimidated by the prospect of working with someone with a disability. On the one hand, I felt embarrassed that my arrival caused such a stir, but I was also touched that these people I would be working with for the next few years had taken an active approach to helping me make the transition into graduate school.
I often feel that it’s the little things that tell us the most about people and that linger in my memory. Whether it’s as friends, colleagues, students, or teachers, a little thoughtfulness can go a long way.
I walked into the classroom last spring to find all the tables moved back to cluster next to the room’s back door, leaving the front of the room all but bare of furniture. My Seeing Eye dog wasn’t particularly impressed by the change, but I’ll never forget it—because the professor rearranged it for our sake. The professor of that class had serious dog allergies, so to avoid aggravating her allergies, I sat at a table by the back door so that my dog could lie out in the hallway next to me. It wasn’t the first time that disability accommodations meant that I occupied a different space in the classroom than my classmates. Much of the technology I used throughout middle and high school meant that I had a different kind of table to put it on and usually spent my time in the classroom in my own little corner, inadvertently isolated from my fellow students. I always accepted this physical distance as inevitable, and even though it was uncomfortable, I felt that it wasn’t my place to ask for anything different since I was already receiving additional assistance. Ask for as little as possible, stick to what you need and not what you want, and you minimize the risk of making people reluctant to give you a chance to prove yourself; that’s how I thought of accommodations, having had to negotiate and sometimes fight for participation in programs in the past. As I grew older, I realized that that physical distance created a social distance as well, and so I made a point of sitting with my classmates when I could and dispensing with the use of certain technologies when not absolutely necessary. That rearrangement of tables and chairs was the first time that anyone other than myself had ever thought of how sitting apart from the rest of the class might make me feel. It was the teacher’s attempt to make sure that I still felt included, and it was a gesture that I greatly appreciate.
I could talk about the great work in education that’s being done here and the practical research that drew me here in the first place, and all of that is important to me. But it’s moments like these—when a colleague from my research lab group came to find me after my very first conference workshop because she thought I might need help finding my way to my next destination, when a classmate offered to help me find my way to a building I’ve never visited before I even have the chance to ask her—that make me especially glad that I am here at UCI’s School of Education.