Of the nearly 7,500 students who will graduate from the University of Oklahoma this May, it may be the one who was born without sight who actually sees OU the best.
“I love being out on our campus,” said Laurel Wheeler, a senior from North Richland Hills, Texas, who is majoring in Russian. “I can’t see it like most can, but I know it is really nice and we have buildings and a lot of open space. What I really love most, though, is our community and that we are like a big family.”
When Wheeler was born, her eyes didn’t form completely. Her left eye is artificial, and she learned to read and write in braille. She can see light and dark and shapes and movement. She uses a computer screen braille display reader to access her course materials.
Wheeler also relies on her guide dog, Stockard. The two were paired by Guide Dogs for the Blind seven years ago based on pace and personality. Stockard, who was named after a volunteer with the organization, knows nearly 40 commands and helps Wheeler get places safely.
“There is no way I could get around like I do without her,” said Wheeler. “Blindness can be isolating if you let it be, and she has helped me form friendships. Instead of people looking at me as blind first and then as a person, she has helped change the perception of me to a girl with a dog who happens to be blind.”
The two go everywhere together. Stockard accompanies Wheeler to all of her classes, and even OU football and Oklahoma City Thunder games. When they went to the Graduation Gear-Up event to purchase Wheeler’s cap and gown, they met Kris White, a 20-year employee of Jostens. He surprised Wheeler by telling her the company would have graduation regalia custom-made for Stockard.
“I visit with a lot of students, and when I heard her story I knew she couldn’t have done it without her dog,” said White. “I told her we wanted Stockard to graduate with her. This is the first time we’ve done this in my territory, but I took the measurements of her dog from his tail to his head, and we are designing a cap and gown. At Jostens, we celebrate great moments, and this is a great moment.”
The moment Wheeler has been working toward took nearly seven years, along with a number of challenges. According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 11.9 percent of people who report having a visual disability complete their bachelor’s degree. Wheeler’s appreciation for OU started when she transferred after a difficult experience at another university.
“I started at a different university closer to home in Texas, and they refused to accommodate my disability,” said Wheeler. “Originally, I majored in French and Russian, and they told me they didn’t want to accommodate Russian any longer. I continued as a French major and was six hours away from graduating when they tried to make me take inaccessible classes. I walked away because I wasn’t going to let someone else dictate my education to me. OU took me and Norman was a blind-friendly town.”
After transferring to OU as a non-degree student, Wheeler was quiet and shy while adjusting. She was close to returning home but credits her mentor, Rachick Virabyan, OU instructor of Russian, with convincing her to pursue her goals.
“Rachick really pulled me out of my shell when I first came to OU,” said Wheeler. “He convinced me I had what it takes and told me he wouldn’t let me quit college. He spent an hour talking me out of dropping out. By the end of my first semester, I decided to continue on with Russian because that’s where my heart is.”
Wheeler was the first student Virabyan taught who has unique barrier to learning in regards to accessibility needs. At first she was extremely shy and would give very short answers to questions. He looked for ways to earn her trust and make her believe in herself. Virabyan treated Wheeler like everyone else, and with every class she became more engaged and even competed in a Russian poetry reading.
“I started by asking Laurel about her study experience at her previous school,” said Virabyan. “I told her now that she was in a safe and friendly environment, we could prove her previous professor wrong. Earning a degree in a subject one dreams about is a great deal, especially for Laurel, who overcame many obstacles. I would say she has grown from a very fragile person into one who is strongly standing on her feet who can stand up for herself and who isn’t afraid to express her opinion. I am proud I could be next to her to witness her growth.”
This year, Virabyan received the Cecil W. Woods Memorial Teaching Award in Modern Languages. This award, established by William Woods and Martha Nell Woods Fentriss, honors excellence in the teaching of modern languages.
Wheeler also credits the OU Disability Resource Center with accommodating her. The center is led by director Chelle’ Guttery. They help prepare Wheeler’s materials in foreign languages and she is also employed at the center testing websites and screen readers.
“I met Laurel long before she came to OU during conversations in which she interviewed me and OU for how we would be able to accommodate her needs,” said Guttery. “She is perserverant, dedicated and enthusiastic in all her endeavors. She and Stockard are delights to know, and I have no doubt that she has a brilliant future.”
Wheeler can communicate in eight different languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Arabic, Wolof, Arminian and Georgian) and would like to create a curriculum that is accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. She plans to attend graduate school and become one of the first blind college professors of Russian in the country. Her dream is to one day teach at OU. Before that, she will spend the next year building her nonprofit, The Laurel Wheeler Foundation, which will help people with disabilities in Russia, Georgia and Armenia get the technology and training they need to become independent.
“I am an OU Sooner for life,” said Wheeler. “It means everything to me to find a community where I feel like I belong. At other places, I was told I wasn’t worth the time it took to teach me, and blind people would never learn or succeed. To go from that to this means everything. I want to give back to the university that basically gave me a chance at an education when nobody else would.”
Leading Wheeler across the stage at graduation will be one of the last responsibilities for Stockard. Due to her age, she is slowing down and will retire. Guide Dogs for the Blind is already training another dog for Wheeler.
“We’ve been through a lot, and Stockard is an important member of the OU community and deserves to graduate with me,” said Wheeler. “This is the culmination of the hard work and the effort of my family and all the people who have helped me along the way. You can’t allow other people to determine the course of your life, and I was convinced by the way I was treated before coming to OU that I deserved mediocrity. Your education determines a large percentage of what you will do in life. At OU, I learned you are the sole determiner of your outcome and you deserve the best.”
Laurel Wheeler will graduate from the University of Oklahoma on May 12 with a bachelor’s degree in Russian. The University of Oklahoma Commencement will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, May 12, in the Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, 180 West Brooks St. The College of Arts and Sciences Convocation is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, May 13, in Lloyd Noble Center, 2900 Jenkins Ave.