Amidst the anxiety and stress of midterms, classes, relationships and friendships, many students would admit that college is pretty hard.
One thing might make it harder, though.
Muhammad Saif Ullah, 21, a senior biology major from the suburb of Glen Ellyn, goes through the same difficulties as any other college student, but he has also been legally blind since birth.
However, while he is considered legally blind, he can still see the larger general shape of objects. It becomes more of a problem for Ullah when it comes to reading whether it be a street sign, or a label on food at the grocery store. His blindness is caused by a genetic mutation called oculocutaneous albinism, which inhibits the production of melanin in the retina, which leads to visual impairment.
“As a student, I have to study two times the amount as someone with normal vision because my reading pace is nearly cut in half. I can’t drive, and it is often very difficult for me to read street signs. Whenever I travel somewhere new, like to the suburbs, I always have to bring someone with me,” Ullah said.
Ullah currently resides in an apartment off campus near the intersection of Sheridan Road and Hollywood Avenue. He says that it is easy for him to travel to and from campus because of the familiarity of the area and that he has never lived on campus.
In order to overcome his biggest obstacle, reading, Ullah said he uses a software on his laptop called Open Book, which scans all of his textbooks. The software then puts the text on the screen in larger print and reads the words aloud.
“After a while, my eyes get tired from continually looking at a computer screen, so since it is reading it to me, I can close my eyes and listen to it,” Ullah said.
Despite his lack of vision, Ullah has remained positive about life. Ullah has plans to continue on to medical school in the Chicago area and eventually become a psychiatrist.
“There are two ways of looking at the glass: either half full or half empty,” Ullah said. “Be thankful for what God has blessed you with and see it as half full, because there are many people who have nothing in their glass at all.”
Ullah said his faith, family and the Loyola community have all helped him to stay positive and to dedicate his life to the service of others.
“True happiness lies not in serving yourself, but in serving others,” he said.
His positive attitude has helped Ullah achieve success in academics as well as outside the classroom.
One of his most recent successes included receiving, for the third consecutive year, a scholarship from The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, an organization dedicated to providing opportunities for those with visual impairment.
The scholarship can be awarded to post-high school students across the country who can verify their visual impairment or blindness with documentation. It requires an application process that shows academic excellence, an array of extracurricular activities, community service and includes a meeting with the donors of The Chicago Lighthouse. The amount awarded varies each semester.
In addition, Ullah is receiving other scholarships for academics and community service, which he said pay for nearly all of his tuition. He has obtained scholarships from the National Federation of the Blind, the Presidential half-scholarship from Loyola, as well as funding from his research work in a biology lab.
However, Ullah remains modest about his achievements.
“[In my religion, Islam], we emphasize heavily on modesty because at the end of the day, everything that you have is from God. Through God, my parents, friends and all of the wonderful people at Loyola, I have been able to make the Dean’s List every semester and maintain a 4.0 GPA.”
Ullah is also very involved on campus. He is a Wellness Advocate at the Wellness Center. He also participates in the Muslim Student Association and the Achieving College Excellence (ACE) program. He works in a biology research lab, and volunteers at the local Saint Francis Hospital and at the Human Experience exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
He also participates in religious events, such as retreats and preparing food with and for members of mosques throughout the Chicago area.
Ullah’s involvement and success does not come without challenges, though.
He said he often sacrifices sleep to continue to be involved on campus, as well as to keep up with his studies.
“I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I usually get around two hours of sleep a night,” Ullah said. “It would be a vacation if I got six hours of sleep.”
Being a visually impaired college student, Ullah said it is sometimes hard to find accommodations for testing outside of Loyola.
In preparing for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Ullah said it took five months for him to get his accommodations approved. These accommodations generally consist of twice the amount of testing time, 20-point font instead of the general 10-point font for the text and a different location for the test that has better lighting for his visual needs.
Ullah’s counselor in the Services for Students With Disabilities, Meg Kelleher, works with him one-on-one to get proper help and accommodations in order to achieve his academic goals.
“[Ullah] embodies a rare mix of intelligence, curiosity, kindness, spirituality and humility with a genuine willingness to work hard,” Kelleher said. “He told me once that he saw his disability as a gift, as it has encouraged him to ask others for help when he needs it and has thus allowed him to better see his interconnectedness with others.”
Ullah offered advice and his email, firstname.lastname@example.org, to other students who may be struggling with a disability or the stresses of college.
“Never think you’re alone,” he said. “There is always someone there that you can lean on, especially here at Loyola; it is just a matter of reaching out and getting that help.”
by Sarah Morsheimer