Seeing What’s Important

Dawn Penson (right) is a blind Human Services major with a 4.0 grade point average. She is pictured with Nancy Carr (left), Director of OCC’s Office of Accessibility Resources. Penson and Carr are in Coulter Hall where Penson receives assistance with many of her on-campus needs.

Onondaga Community College students have selected Dawn Penson to represent them on the Board of Trustees during the 2019-2020 academic year. Penson is energetic, eternally optimistic, and an outstanding student. She is also blind. Her inspirational story is below.

Dawn Penson isn’t interested in bling… whether its your new Michael Kors handbag, your designer jeans or your latest and greatest cell phone. She views the world much differently than most of us. “The best thing about me being blind is that I can’t see what anyone looks like. I can’t see if they’re young, if they’re old or what they’re wearing. I see character.”

Penson is a 41-year-old mother of three who started going blind earlier this decade when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. Despite the fact it is a hereditary eye disease, she is the first in her family tree to be impacted by it. “I keep a positive attitude 99.9% of the time. I’m a glass half-full person. I have faith and I believe everything happens for a reason.”

Penson uses Centro’s Call-A-Bus program to get to and from campus every day.

Her seemingly endless optimism was put to the test recently. Penson was born and raised in Central New York and eventually moved to Texas at age 18 where she would spend nearly two decades. During her time there she thought she had earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. But when she returned to Central New York and attempted to access her credential, she learned she had paid to attend a Texas school which was a scam and had nothing to show for it.

She now had to start over academically and that meant pursuing a GED here. In an apparent cost-cutting measure New York State had allowed the test to become privatized. The company in charge of it, Pearson VUE, had never made a version of the test for someone who was blind. Making the test would take a year-and-a-half because of the various levels of approval required along the way. At one point Penson was offered the opportunity to receive a passing grade on the math portion because of the difficulties in creating the test. “I said ‘absolutely not. If you waive it for me you have to waive it for someone who can see.’ There’s no reason in this day and age why you can’t make something accessible.”

While the test was being created, Penson spent the summer of 2018 taking classes at OCC and learning her way around campus. She arrived daily thanks to transportation provided by Centro’s call-a-bus. She walked from one end of campus to the other while using her white cane and being guided by a Mobility Instructor. With each step she became more comfortable in her learning environment.

Penson works with Professor Laurel Saiz in Ferrante Hall as part of Independent Study for ENG 104, Composition and Literature.

In December Penson finally took the new GED test which is known as the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion). She had a reader and a scribe during the test so questions could be read to her and answers could be written down. It took her four days to complete the test. In January she received a phone call and was informed she had passed the test. “I was so excited and so relieved!” Penson had become the first blind student in all of New York State to pass the TASC and the first blind student to earn her high school equivalency in Onondaga County in eight years.

Penson’s success meant she could matriculate into the Human Services major where she owns a perfect 4.0 grade point average and is on track to receive her associate degree in May of 2020. Her goal is to one day advocate for the disabled with a focus on policy and legislation. That’s why earlier this week she was in Albany, lobbying state lawmakers for a blind person’s right to parent. Under New York State law a blind parent can have a child taken away because he or she is blind.

Leadership is nothing new for Penson. She has been on the board for the National Federation of the Blind and is currently on the board for Arise which assists people with developmental disabilities and their families. She is also a member of OCC’s Student Association and serves as a Senator-At-Large. She may have an even more significant role on campus next fall. Penson is being nominated for the Student Trustee position by Nancy Carr who is the Director of the college’s Office of Accessibility Resources. Carr’s office, along with the Testing Center which are both located in Coulter Hall, assist Penson with all of her on-campus needs. “We are all so amazed by her optimism and sense of humor. She finds ways to go around obstacles in ways that help others so they can benefit from her experience,” said Carr. “I hope I can open doors for the next person and make a small difference,” added Penson. “I want everyone in the disability community to be successful.”

Penson story was highlighted recently by WSYR TV, Newschannel 9’s team of reporter Jeff Kulikowsky and videographer Marty Sicilia. You can view the story here.

OCC Student Named “DREAM Scholar”

Christopher Son, 2017 DREAM Scholar
Christopher Son, 2017 DREAM Scholar

Christopher Son has been chosen to participate as a “DREAM Scholar” at the upcoming Achieving the Dream (ATD) professional development conference. Son was one of only six students nationwide selected. He will present at the ATD conference later this month in San Francisco.

Son’s journey to academic success is remarkable. He’s the child of Vietnamese immigrants and a first generation college student. He’s a Communication Studies major, an officer in international honor society Phi Theta Kappa and a leader in the Scholar to Scholar Peer Mentoring Program. “If you would have asked me if this would have been possible I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.

Nine years ago Son was a freshman at Syracuse’s Henninger High School. Halfway through his freshman year he quit going to class. Son kept leaving his home every morning and returning every afternoon so his parents would think he was attending school. He kept doing it for three years before finally telling his parents the truth. “I was immature. I had no interest in school. By that point I wasn’t doing anything. I was very unhealthy physically and mentally.”

Son had ballooned to 290 pounds and realized he needed to change his life. “Everything began with me getting back in shape. It took a long time but I got down to 180 pounds. Once I slimmed down I said, ‘Okay! What’s next?’”

Son’s next challenge was his mind. His first accomplishment was earning his GED. Next he wanted to break out of his shell. “I was shy and nervous. I felt the only way to overcome that was to go to college.”

Son came to OCC in time for the spring 2014 semester and knew he had a lot of work in front of him. “I was away from school for six years. I hadn’t read a book or done anything that involved school.”

During his first semester all of Son’s courses were developmental. He worked hard and performed well giving him the confidence to succeed. “I got a 4.0. It didn’t count in terms of getting credit but it counted for something. I felt good.”

Since that first semester Son has continued to grow as both a student and a person. His personal transformation on the OCC campus makes the College a place he will always call home. “I feel like I just started to be a part of something. I don’t want to leave. It’s more than amazing here. I’m grateful I came here and got to meet amazing professors.”