True North: Discovering the Strength of Your Inner Compass

Anonymous (not verified) July 13, 2020 - 1:00am

By Kathryn Webster

Editor’s Note: During the last weekend in January 2019, Kathryn organized a joint conference for Project RISE participants and leaders from the National Association of Blind Students. On Saturday evening, the two groups came together for a banquet and keynote speech that merged the goals of both tracks in one inspirational presentation. Following is the text of Kathryn’s remarks.

We learn from Jillian Michaels that people believe practice makes perfect, but it doesn't. If you're making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you're doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes. In high school, I, like many of you, made a ton of mistakes and I am still reflecting each day to ensure I am not making the same errors. In losing my sight quickly and uncontrollably, I let external pressures overtake my autonomy and even my values. I leaned on those who didn’t believe in me as I shaped my future.

Now, I ask myself why? Why did I seek advice from my high school guidance counselor on a weekly basis, when her low expectations were blatant as she pigeon-holed me into colleges that I saw as subpar and incompatible? I had an above average GPA; I proved myself through my scores on standardized tests; I was a Girl Scout Gold Award recipient; I was a cheerleader, ran track, rowed; and the list goes on. On paper, I was worth it. Mostly worth it because, as a blind woman, I felt that I had no choice in the world but to excel more than my sighted counterparts to be given serious consideration in several elements of life. To my guidance counselor, I was not enough solely because of my blindness.

I could have been the valedictorian; still, my disability created this blurred line of what I could and could not do, almost literally crossing out my qualifications to prove that something just wasn’t all there. Still, I craved her approval and expertise throughout one of the most defining choices of my teen age years. Socially, I disguised my insecurities with extreme confidence and poise. I wanted to be known for anything in the world but my blindness. Truthfully, I wasn’t even blind. I was a visually impaired girl who wouldn’t use a cane because I was scared of what the cute boys would think. I say this now; and I am simply mortified.

Back then, it was true. I worked out excessively to make sure I had everything else going for me because this prominent defect could only be overcome by excellence and exception in all other aspects of my life. Again and again, I sought thumbs-up from people that were supposed to matter. I pitied myself but no one would have ever known. On the surface, I was a young independent woman with lots of sass and attitude. Internally, I struggled.

Those repetitive experiences brought me to the lowest point. J.K. Rolling teaches us that rock bottom becomes the solid foundation on which one rebuilds their life. Stripping your core to the bare minimum requires grit, dedication, resilience, and most importantly, loving yourself. While I am not proud of some of the actions and choices I made; I am grateful for the wake-up call that allowed bright red blood to leave a lasting mark on my character, pushing me toward maturity, authenticity, and true confidence. Had you known me six years ago, you probably could have never imagined me as a successful young adult with a bright and challenging career at a top management consulting firm; or the national student president of the most powerful blindness advocacy organization in the world. Had I not encountered those years of struggle and pain, I would never be where I am today.

And now, this idea of leadership and mentorship comes full circle as we reflect on the meaningful conversations had today. We cannot create leaders without guidance from others. Whether formally or informally, those we look up to have a tremendous impact on our actions and decisions as we progress through our lives.

So far this weekend our Virginia and Mississippi students have learned about branding themselves in a positive and powerful light, understanding that teams are made up of talent from all walks of life. Our national student leaders have learned that our actions are watched and admired. We discussed the idea of first impressions and how each motion we make can be scrutinized and observed by anyone at anytime.

This makes me think of a special day in 2015. I was not yet on the NABS Board and I was a sophomore at Wake Forest University. From a title perspective, I was nothing in the National Federation of the Blind. I was in the lobby of the Embassy Suites Hotel in Boston at the annual Massachusetts State Convention. As I was chugging down my much-needed coffee, an energetic and curious 18-year-old guy approached me. He was weirdly impressed that I was put together, smiling with my shoulders back and head held high; he was impressed that I was walking swiftly around the hotel; he was impressed that, in doing these small actions, I was confidently holding a straight white cane in my right hand. This young adult was impressed that I was carrying on with my day as anyone else would, but he was impressed because I was blind.

This young man and I got to talking and I learned that he was losing his vision faster than he could have even imagined or understood. He was frightened; his family was frightened, and he really thought that his chance of being successful was no longer feasible. These feelings of low self-worth hurt my heart so much. Even more, I felt the pain because I had known that same pain just years prior.

So, how do we fix this pain? How do we, as leaders, leave lasting impressions on our youth so they not only understand, but truly believe that they are remarkable individuals with a shot at greatness? Each of us bring a unique perspective to the table. Some demonstrate leadership by example, others by gentle and intentional guidance, and some through encouraging reflection at the individual level. None of these approaches represent the gold star to leadership. For me, I am a direct and intentional leader, emphasizing accountability and growth. I set higher expectations for people than they do for themselves. I do this because I believe. I believe in pushing oneself to the next level because I want each of us to grab onto our untapped potential and thrive. When we don’t have the internal strength to trust in our actions, we will never take risks and develop as ambitious young people. This young man in Massachusetts didn’t believe in himself. In hearing him share his story with me, I saw a spark in him that radiated throughout our whole conversation. He wanted to be a lawyer, a father, and a husband; most importantly, he wanted to give back to this world. In losing his vision, he couldn’t see how that was possible. I left an impression on him that gave him a glimpse of hope. Each of you have the ability to influence others, but that starts at your core.

Three years later, I share this story with so much pride and joy in the young man that is still developing each and every day. He left his home state and local college to gain blindness skills at one of our NFB training centers. He flew across the country to give himself a chance at greatness. Now, he is a student at a top notch school with a killer GPA. He is on his way to law school in the next year. Most significantly, he is giving back to our world in a way he never saw as possible. While the first encounter we had brought me sadness, it brought him a sense of hope. This guy, who is a year younger than me, encourages me every day to be more relaxed, less hard on myself, and to create spaces of greater openness. Each day, I teach him to be diplomatic, intentional in his words, and reflective in his actions. Each day, I am so grateful for that day in Massachusetts because it brought hope to someone I now call a brother.

Syed Rizvi serves as first Vice President of the largest student organization of blind people in the world. Our peer mentorship to each other brings a sense of challenge to both of us. It is stories like these that make me understand that our interactions leave lasting impacts on everyone; but it is on us to initiate those meaningful moments.

“The blindness journey isn’t easy for anyone, but the power of unity and togetherness emphasizes how important it is to advocate for ourselves and others; to pave the path for every single blind person who may walk in the room right after you. We learn from Brad Paisley that “The world tries to clip your wings.”, The National Federation of the Blind makes sure you know that you won’t let the world have that much control. Once, I was insecure and scared of tomorrow. Through my transition to accepting my blindness, I masked those insecurities with confidence. I pushed myself to come off as stronger than I felt inside. In doing so, I recognized my self worth in a way that allowed others to believe it. In our organization, our family, we lean on each other for the pure sense of comfort we so deserve. And, we also learn from our NFB brothers and sisters that there is a world ahead of us that we must grasp onto and run with. Our dreams can start in this room tonight, but it is your ambitious attitude, bright mind, and dedicated soul that will bring these dreams full circle.

I want to leave you with this piece of advice: be true to yourself, be curious about everything, and take risks. You define your future and we are here to witness your achievements. I promise that the doubt that exists within you is felt by so many others. I also promise you that as we tear down society’s misconceptions of blindness, those doubts will continue to diminish. Keep making me proud.


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