Sofia: The VIP pre-university checklist
You've just been accepted on the degree course of your dreams, congratulations! Here are eight things you might want to consider before you head off to university.
All VIPs I know who have successfully completed a university degree have something in common: they are masters of planning ahead. To help you do this too, here are the most important things that a VIP should think about before going to university. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it should cover the most important aspects of starting a new degree. First and foremost, the most important point is…
1. Contact the university in good time before you start your degree. By 'in good time' I mean at least several months before the beginning of term, ideally as soon as you've been accepted for a place on the course. I cannot stress this enough. The more time there is for you, the disability officer and the lecturers to prepare, the better. Sometimes universities will contact you immediately as you apply if you have indicated on a form or otherwise that you are a VIP, but this depends on the university and the country in question. As a rule, don't rely on them reaching out to you and instead contact the disability officer as early as possible and introduce yourself - a personal relationship can go a long way in terms of help, support and encouragement.
2. Ask the university if another VIP has completed a degree there before you. I'm going to put this here before all the other points because this could significantly simplify your life. Chances are that another VIP has already trampled a road through the high grass for you and might be able to offer you some invaluable advice on how to deal with the various challenges. For myself, it was a great relief to learn that another VIP with an impairment similar to my own had finished the same course just a few years before I was set to start. He also told me about the camera he was using, which inspired the setup that worked for me (read more about that here). If another VIP has taken the course before you, it also means that both you and the university can be confident that your vision will not be an unsurmountable challenge. If, on the other hand, you are the first VIP to enroll with the university, remember that you will be making a path for others, even if you have to struggle a bit in the process. Someone in the future might benefit greatly from what you achieved.
3. Try and imagine the various situations you might encounter and think about what kind of challenges might arise due to your sight. Every degree consists of a number of elements, like lectures, seminars, group work, labs, coding sessions, excursions, various forms of homework and, of course, exams (see the next point for an elaboration). Depending on your course, you will partake in some or all of these different modules - contact you university before you start to find out exactly what you will be doing. Then try and think of ways to deal with every challenge. Can the lecture material be made available in advance? See the next point for more of this. Can you team up with a lab partner who can take on the work that requires a higher degree of visual accuracy? Check out my own lab experiences here. During seminars, can a seat close to the board be reserved for you? It is difficult to anticipate everything, but do your best. Once you start, you might have to experiment with various techniques and setups, which can be difficult to deal with in the middle of term, but it will be worth it in the long run. Remember that some of the elements you encounter at university will also be part of your professional job, such as making your way through large amounts of information, so any strategies you develop here will serve you well in the future, too.
4. Exams are coming. While this might not be relevant immediately as you start the course, you might find yourself face-to-face with exams or other forms of course work sooner than you think. When they appear might depend on your course or which country you're in. In the UK, exams are usually held in May or June at the end of the academic year, whereas in Sweden and other countries they appear at the end of each course module. Before you start, try and have a clear understanding of what will be asked for you in the exam. How can you make the examination as fair to you as possible compared with sighted students? There are a number of elements to consider here. Firstly, the length of exams. You will most definitely be entitled to extra time in exams, speak to the university about their rules about this. Secondly, the format of the exam can be adjusted. If you do humanities subjects, you might be allowed to write the exam on a computer (reading your own handwriting might take you longer than reading printed text). This is sometimes also crucial if you rely on certain assistive software to read the material. Or if you need material in a larger format, this can also be arranged. For me, it was a great relief to have equations printed double size - missing out on marks because I misread a small 8 as a 9 would have been very annoying! Finally, if you are sensitive to sound you might also be entitled to writing the exam in a small room away from other students. All these aspects should be discussed with the disability officers well ahead of time. You might then have to remind them before the exams as well (see the last point).
5. Ask about the course material in good time. This is one of the most important points on the list. Chances are you will need the course material in a different format, like a PDF or an audio book. This depends on the subject and on your preferred method for studying. Fiction or more verbose literature is better suited for audio books, while mathematics will be easier to study from a PDF where the equations can be enlarged. The key point is that these alternative formats will take time to produce. Audio books can take up to a few months to record, if such a service is offered in your country, and PDFs are not always readily available. As an example, my problem was that physics textbooks are usually very bulky (so that it became difficult to hold them closer to my eyes) and the formulas very small, so using PDFs have become my preferred method for learning. Fortunately, my undergraduate university was able to scan library books and convert them to PDFs on demand, which was of great help in my later years when the courses become more specialised. So, you will need to find out what material you are going to need as soon as possible. This is not always easy, since lecturers sometimes decide on the material only a few weeks before the course starts and might be reluctant to give you a definite answer. Sometimes you can check the reading list from the preceding year since the content for certain courses is unlikely to change. If the lecturer gives out notes, perfect, but sometimes these notes are handwritten. I find it very difficult to read handwriting, and joined-up writing is even worse. Sometimes the university will be able to pay a PhD student or similar to transcribe the notes on the computer so that they are more accessible to you. Again, ask for this well-ahead of time.
6. Contact your lecturers before you start. This is especially important if you use some kind of assistive technology in the lectures or seminars. For example, I used a camera to see the board in lecture theatres (read more about that here), which can look quite intimidating to lecturers if they don't know what it's for. Explaining to the lecturers why you are using the technology is key to their understanding and acceptance. My strategy here was to write an email introducing myself and explaining my situation at the beginning of each term. I then asked the disability officer to send it out to all the lecturers concerned. After the first teaching session, I would then go and speak to the lecturer. The response I had to this approach was invariably good - the lecturers were happy for me to use the camera and often asked if they could help me in any other way. Another perk was that they would then always remember me (we were a total of 250 undergraduate students), which helped when I later asked them for help or career advice.
7. Think about the university environments and ask how the university can help you. In other words, think about aspects other than the course you've signed up for. In the UK, universities usually provide accommodation for first-year students, which is great for making new friends and for getting to know a new city. When there are many options available, some of which might be highly contested, the university may be able to put you up in a room closer to campus. At Imperial, I was given a room in a close but modestly priced hall, which helped me a lot in the first year. Even though I can navigate well in a city, it was still a relief that I wouldn't have to learn a long new road, or keep my guard up in the crazy London traffic every morning. If you have trouble navigating around campus, ask the university if they can assign someone to help you find your way around during the first weeks, perhaps a friendly classmate. You can also ask if they can timetable lectures in the same room so that you don't have to make the trek around campus every time.
8. Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. Or put another way, when necessary, don't be afraid to remind the university that you do need help. I write this here because it is sometimes difficult to admit that you need help - I will elaborate more on this in a future blog post. However the university degree exists for your benefit, and so make sure you get as much out of it as possible. While you definitely need to ask them for help before you start, it might also become necessary as time goes on. As a short-sighted VIP, my disability is not immediately visible and so I can sometimes pass for sighted. This is sometimes nice when I am too lazy to draw attention to my disability, but it carries the disadvantage that people need to be reminded that I actually can't see well. While this is not the same for everyone, admin is hard and so sometimes you will have to remind the university that they need to provide the extra help, especially around exams. I've heard of many disappointing stories where the university forgot to provide the correct assistive software on the exam computer, or supplied an unreadable PDF instead of a Word-document with the exam questions. There is no excuse for this, but in your own interest you might want to contact the examiners the day before the exam to make sure everything is ready. While being an additional burden on the VIP, this is sometimes necessary in order to achieve the grades that truly match your potential.
In the end, everyone's situation will be different, but if you manage to address each of these points I think you will be more than well-prepared for your degree. I also wanted to draw attention to the large amount of planning that is sometimes necessary in order for a VIP to be able to participate fully at university. I hope that this checklist will not act as a deterrent, but rather as a reminder that preparation will always be the key to success for a VIP. In fact, someone I know used this kind of planning as proof of good organisational skills in a job interview. So if you want to, you can see these preparations as an opportunity to improve your planning and communication skills. Best of luck!
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