Melissa Finefrock, who graduates this weekend, says UNT faculty and staff helped her succeed

Melissa Finefrock

Melissa Finefrock

Adjusting to life at a college or university -- including spending more time on studying and class assignments and living in a residence hall -- is a challenge for most students.

University of North Texas English major Melissa Finefrock also faced the obstacles of not being able to receive some of the books required for her classes until several weeks after a semester started -- because both Braille and audio books aren't always easily available.

Finefrock, who will graduate from UNT May 11, has been visually impaired from birth, after inheriting a condition from her mother's side of her family. Her blindness hasn't stopped her from earning not only a bachelor's degree in English with a concentration in literature, but also an undergraduate certificate in rehabilitation studies, which she says will be a plus in searching for a job.

"I'm hoping to do some kind of advocacy for people with disabilities," she says.

"The degree in English has given me a well-rounded education, but my passion is helping people."

During her commencement ceremony, Finefrock, who uses a cane and not a guide dog, will be escorted across the stage by Michelle Perez, assistant professor of early childhood studies in UNT's College of Education. The two became friends after meeting in a cafeteria last fall, and see each other often.

"I've really learned a lot from Melissa," Perez says.

Help from others

Finefrock is a 2009 graduate of Royce City High School in Rockwall County. She says she chose UNT partially because of the university's Office of Disability Accommodation. The office provides adaptive computer lab devices such as screen readers, which read aloud texts on computer screens, including Microsoft Word documents and web pages. Finefrock said the office staff scanned some of her books to convert them into accessible formats. She said reading books on computers allows her to highlight sentences and read pre-designated parts of the screen on demand, which she can't do with audio books.

"The first people I became friends with at UNT were Rebecca Cagle with the ODA, and Theresa Flowers, the advisor in the English department," Finefrock says. "In UNT's ODA, you're not just a number, and the staff wants you to succeed and will help you tell your professors what you need, if you don't already know how to ask for what you need."

Educating others

At UNT, Finefrock lived in a residence hall all four years. She became an advocate for other students with disabilities when she and another student submitted a request to the university's Americans with Disabilities Act Advisory Committee, asking for students with disabilities to be informed about ongoing construction projects on campus so they would know to change their routes between buildings. As a result, the Office of Disability Accommodation began posting monthly Construction Obstruction Reports on its website, and also sending the information to students via e-mail.

And although her bachelor's degree in English will have a literature concentration, Finefrock said she's "more of a writer than a reader." She was recently recognized at UNT's annual Honors Day Convocation for winning the Undergraduate Writing Award in Poetry from the Department of English.

Taking risks

Finefrock says she also enjoys doing "crazy things that people would not expect me to do," like taking photographs and hiking. She's also played acoustic guitar for nine years, and travels regularly to Plano, via Denton County Transportation Authority and Dallas Area Rapid Transit trains, to visit her grandparents.

"There are things that are terrifying to do when you're blind, but you have to live," she says.

After graduation, Finefrock hopes to work for an independent living agency that serves those with disabilities. She has volunteered for six years with REACH, or Rehabilitation, Education and Advocacy for Citizens with Handicaps, which has offices in Dallas, Denton, Plano and Fort Worth.

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