UBCO psychology graduate Kathleen Cusmano and her dog Haven collected their degree on Thursday.

Two students who have the extra challenge of being sight-impaired crossed the stage at UBC Okanagan’s convocation ceremony on Thursday to receive their Bachelor of Arts degrees in psychology.

Michelle Jorgensen and Kathleen Cusmano, who are a testament to determination and will-power. Despite being visually-impaired, they both obtained good academic standing throughout their programs and consider their accomplishments a stepping stone to helping others achieve their goals.

“The UBCO professors were super encouraging and accommodating with my requests for extra support,” said Jorgensen, who has been legally blind since birth. “The professors OK’d my magnifiers (which helped her read), spent extra time with me and buoyed my spirits.”

Jorgensen has learned to advocate for herself. Much to her mother’s surprise and joy, and despite the doctors’ predictions, Jorgensen used what limited vision she had to play with toys and get to know her environment. Since then, there has been no stopping her.

“I heard the word ‘no’ a lot,” she says. “No, you can’t play sports, no you can’t read, just no.”

These discouragements have added fuel to Jorgensen’s fiery spirit.

She learned the three Rs in public school by using her own devices — she brought magnifiers to school and learned to do math in her head.

“I once scored 65 per cent on a math exam because I didn’t show my work,” she said. “When it came to writing the final exam, which was multiple choice, my grade was above 90 per cent.”

Jorgensen applied the same can-do attitude to university. She quickly embraced the campus culture, volunteering and joining clubs and wasn’t shy to approach the professors with questions or requests. She also discovered a love for martial arts.

Thanks to the support of her jiu jitsu instructor and the gym community, she has risen to the ranks of a blue belt. She has won three gold medals, two silver and one bronze in judo and jiu jitsu competitions.

“I like to challenge people’s perceptions of me,” she said while standing on stiletto heels and holding her white cane.

Jorgensen is employed as a client support worker at NOW Canada, an organization that provides a continuum of care for vulnerable women, youth and their children who have been exploited or are homeless. She agrees her academic training, especially the forensic psychology classes, prepared her well for her new position.

“Thanks to an understanding of how the mind works, I can better empathize and support our clients,” she said.

An interest in human behaviour also triggered Cusmano’s application to UBC Okanagan.

“I was so excited about finishing my last classes,” she said.

Cusmano lost her sight in her 20s and had to adapt to this change later in life. As she is completely blind, Cusmano relies on her dog, Haven, to help navigate her world.

“She’s such a friendly dog. I spend a lot of time stopping while people pet her,” she said.

Technology has played a key role in Cusmano’s learning, as does her assistant Lynn Eileen. Cusmano learns by listening to the professor during lectures, while Eileen takes notes. To reinforce the learning, Cusmano will listen to a transcribed audio version of the notes. Like Jorgensen, she agrees UBCO professors have surpassed expectations for support.

“I really enjoy the class environment and energy,” said Cusmano. “The professors have been incredibly encouraging.”

Cusmano’s main challenge has been manoeuvring through the campus and spaces. She and Haven bused from Vernon to attend classes.

“Learning the material was the easiest part for me,” she said. “Bumping into people, finding the right classes and seats required a huge amount of energy.”

Cusmano has applied her psychology knowledge to working with the Canadian Mental Health Association and aims to be a personal counsellor.

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