Joe Retherford

Joe Retherford lost most of his vision as the result of a hunting accident. Three weeks prior to graduating from high school in Northern California, his family were on a hunting trip in Mexico, and an accidental discharge of a shotgun hit Joe. Once he was able to return to the U.S., he insisted upon attending his high school graduation, but with the onset of summer, reality started to sink in as well. Joe did not waste much time in finding the help he needed and has not stopped since.

As a competitive bagpiper, music was an important tool in giving Joe strength and comfort while learning orientation and mobility, how to use the assistive tech he would need to use in college and how to do things he took for granted, such as fixing his own lunch. Considered to have “low vision”, Joe probably does not always use the tools in ways a TVI might expect, but he definitely does not let anything slow him down. Graduating this past May from UC Davis was a victory he can be proud of.

Joe has acted as a mentor locally, in the UC Davis area, but welcomes the chance to help more students who may be on the same journey as he.

Valeria Paradiso

"This program demonstrates the importance of potential. For instance, being really good at something and realizing that you're suddenly employable. More blind students need to be able to reach this point, and this program can help students get there."

Valeria has been blind since birth, but blessed with a very supportive family and the ability to make lots of friends. She is a very avid technology user, from her iPhone to her braille Note-taker, there is no technology that can stand in the way of this very determined young woman.

While working on her undergraduate degree at Hunter College in New York, Valeria developed great cane skills, as she said, “navigating Hunter could be very scary at times, you had to know where you were constantly!” Using her people skills, Valeria navigated in much the same way, she found out what she needed and if she needed help or could do it herself. She calls this, “strategic independence” and considers this one of her best traits.

Valeria considers music as one of the most important parts of her life. She has taught both music and braille to young people in New York City. As she works on her TVI degree, she is excited to work with Learning Ally as a mentor to other young people on their journey. Valeria is one of three students to win the prestigious Mary P. Oenslager scholarship for 2015, from Learning Ally.

Abigail Lanier

Blindness, like many other disabilities, is often viewed as a negative characteristic for members of our society. Although it continues to create numerous obstacles in Abigail Lanier’s life, she chooses to consider it a positive quality about herself. Diagnosed at age four with Retinitis Pigmentosa, she lives with a gradual deterioration of her retina, viewing the world through an ever changing lens of colors and foggy shapes.

Abigail attributes much of her philosophy and positive attitude towards her disability to her mother, an educator and interpreter for the deaf. Her mother’s support and motivation to advocate for herself have prompted Abigail to achieve goals others might deem unattainable. Learning to view her disability as merely a portion of her identity is one of the many valuable lessons her mother has taught her.

A transplant to New York from North Carolina, Abigail strives to educate the public on persons with disabilities through her hobbies and work. She received a BS in Music Industry Studies and a minor in General Business from Appalachian State University in May of 2014. Abigail divides her time at Learning Ally among serving as the College Success Program’s mentorship coordinator, contributing her skills with audio and recording to the production process of Learning Ally’s audio books and mentoring students. She is interested in audio production for journalistic podcasts, and was a 2014 New Voices Scholar at the Third Coast Audio Conference in Chicago. As a long distance runner, she is a member of Achilles International, an organization promoting mainstream athletics for people with disabilities. She has competed in several national half and whole marathons and triathlons. Often people are surprised at how she lives such an active lifestyle, and she hopes to teach others that the quality of life for a person with a disability should never be viewed as less than that of an able bodied person. Abigail faces the challenges of living with a disability by living life to the fullest.

Caitlin Mongillo

Caitlin Mongillo is a social worker and program director at an unemployment agency in Bridgeport, CT. Currently, Caitlin works with people with disabilities and homeless families to assist them in accessing training, resources and education to assist in attaining steady employment. Caitlin received her MSW in 2013 from Stony Brook University, and her BA in English and secondary education in 2010 from Manhattanville College.

Caitlin spends her free time reading, writing, and hanging out with family and friends. She loves to travel and learn new things. She is excited to share her educational journey with the next generation of blind students, and hopes that her experiences, both good and bad, will be able to help other students as they progress through higher education.

Megan Dausch

Megan Dausch is an advocate, a perpetual learner, teacher, cook and technology enthusiast who loves to read and write. She has been blind since birth. She attributes her success inside and outside of the classroom to her belief that blindness is just one of the many pieces of her; to the principle that true independence is embracing interdependence and to her supportive family.

She lives in New York with her husband and guide dog. She received her bachelors degree from Manhattanville College, where she studied English, Spanish and French. She holds a Masters degree in Language and Literacy from The City College of New York.

After graduating, Megan worked as an English professor, which made her even more keenly aware of college students' needs. She currently teaches adaptive technology.

She looks forward to giving back by becoming a part of the College Success Program. College is often a time of challenge, transition and joyful exploration. Megan hopes to share her experiences and support others through this exciting time.

Zachary Mason

I grew up on a dairy farm in northern New Hampshire. The use of my right eye was completely lost and that of my left was severely reduced at the age of four from a brain tumor. Despite what many would consider a setback at such a tender age, my blindness never stopped my love for or involvement in animal husbandry. My life was not determined by my disability, but rather by my involvement in my county and state 4-H livestock extension programs.

After graduating high school as salutatorian, I went on to study Animal Science at Cornell University. At Cornell I participated in many organizations such as the Cornell Dairy Science, Cheese, and Food Science clubs; in addition to becoming a member of the Alpha Zeta honors agricultural fraternity. I also belonged to the Cornell Dairy Fellows Program; a curriculum within the Animal Science department, which is well-known for training the future leaders of the dairy industry. Presently I am a master’s student at Mississippi State University in the department of Animal and Dairy Sciences.

I have a passion for problem solving, farm families and agriculture as a whole. I have also come to realize through multiple experiences and by meeting many exemplary blind professionals that the limiting factor to one’s success is not accessibility, but rather ingenuity and flexibility.

Rashad Jones

Rashad Jones is a native of Columbus, Georgia (where he currently resides), and is the 2nd oldest of 4 siblings. In May of 2015, he completed a Bachelor of Music in Music Education (Choral-Voice) from the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University. As a self-proclaimed people person, Rashad can often be found enjoying a nice conversation with close friends and family members, while relaxing in the comfort of his home. He enjoys attending church where he serves as minister of music, traveling, interacting with people, and helping others whenever possible!

Mike Mello

My name is Mike Mello. I graduated from college in 2005. I attended the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, majoring in psychology. I currently live in Seattle, Washington with my cat, Manny. I work for the Washington state Department of services for the blind (DSB).

While attending the University of Idaho, I had a three year summer internship with the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle; my focus was on information technology. Unfortunately, after graduation, a position was not available in information technology. Because of my psychology background, I decided to take a position as a human resources specialist. I did this job for 2.5 years and realized that it was not for me. When DSB came knocking on my door to become an Assistive Technology Specialist, I jumped at the opportunity to change my career. My job with DSB is very rewarding, and I enjoy helping people as much as possible. Every day, I get to work with individuals and problem solve issues related to technology in education or the workplace.

In my free time, I enjoy cooking, watching Netflix, reading, spending time outdoors, and going to happy hour with friends. I am active in the National Federation of the Blind, and I am a leader in our state affiliate, serving as the First Vice-President of the state of Washington, and the President of the Greater Seattle Chapter. I'm looking forward to my involvement as a mentor in the college success program and am excited to meet all of you!

James Boehm

Determination and mission summarize James Boehm’s way of life. Since becoming blind in 2010, James has continually challenged himself, not allowing his loss of vision to keep him from the many available opportunities in this new chapter of his life. Mr. Boehm, former automotive restyling business owner of 15 years, now uses his experience with customization and design in his new enterprise, Kustom Cane. He designs and personalizes mobility canes, dog harnesses, and other accessories such as protectant and charms to sell on In 2012, James began furthering his education at MTSU with the intention of acquiring a masters degree in psychology; in turn, Mr. Boehm’s goals include becoming a clinical counselor to empower others using his own experience with vision loss, helping others to see that life has not ended, but has just begun. James graduated in May 2016 with Magna Cum Laude honors and with his bachelors in psychology, minoring in social work and mental health counseling. James was accepted into a very competitive program at Peabody of Vanderbilt University to continue his clinical counseling track , a program that accepted only 20 students.

James is an active member in his community and in the NFB, serving as president of his local Nashville chapter. James started the Tennessee Association of Guide Dog Users and served as president of the division until taking a board position in 2016, in order to become more involved on a national level. As secretary of the state of Tennessee’s affiliate, James serves on the board, as well as on many committees, including the fundraising committee with the National Association of Guide Dog Users, the law and policy committee of the Human Services division, and his state’s membership committee. James regularly presents and maintains an email list regarding assistive technology, with Apple products being his specialty. In 2014, James was a winner of one of the national 2014 NFB scholarships and two other scholarships, while maintaining a GPA of 3.9 at Middle Tennessee State University.

Mr. Boehm’s mission is to demonstrate and emphasize that with the appropriate education, attitude, and training, blindness is a characteristic, not a disability, and it should be embraced as one lives a fulfilling life. Blindness does not limit-low expectations do! We can live the life we want and be strong contributors to society.

Vivian Fridas

Vivian Fridas holds a graduate degree in Government and Politics from St. John’s University. She concentrated on International Relations and received a certificate in International Law and Diplomacy in 2013. Most recently, Vivian worked as the Program Mentor for the Youth in International development and Foreign Affairs Fellowship with the United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD). During this time, Vivian worked on a project addressing the gap between policy and practice of all bilateral and multilateral funded programs mandated under Article 32 of the UN CRPD, and ensuring they are in fact inclusive of people with disabilities. This proposal developed an approach to increase knowledge related to donor practices and provide tools that would support disability-inclusive development. Additionally, Vivian has also spent time working on issues of barriers to political participation for people with disabilities.

In addition, Vivian volunteers her time with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in many different capacities. She is a big advocate of guide dog related issues, such as equal access and educating the surrounding community about discrimination toward guide dog handlers.