UNA student gives perspective on personal experiences

UNA student gives perspective on personal experiences

University of North Alabama senior Annie Park’s journey from a girl in a Russian orphanage to a student in college has been filled with challenges, but she continues to adapt with a mixture of independence and help from friends and strangers.

Park was dropped off after a meeting Feb. 4, when she realized that she might not be at the right dorm.

“This is something blind people have to deal with,” Park said. “They are at the mercy of their ride.”

After an Active Minds meeting, an organization that promotes the awareness of mental health, she had asked one of the members to drop her off because it was dark and cold that night. The guy she asked had driven her places before.

“For various events, I have different people drive me,” she said. “It’s not like I have one specific driver. Usually, I walk across campus but the only reason I will get people to drive me sometimes is my dad doesn’t like for me to walk alone at night. It’s kind of a scary thing to do that – to be a woman and to walk alone at night.”

The guy drove her to where Park believed was her dorm at Hawthorne. However, she immediately noticed that something was off. The entrance felt more cramped and her mane card was not working.

Park assumed the machine was not working. So, she stood there and knocked until someone exiting the building let her inside. She said that at first, she did not think anything of it.

“Then, my key didn’t work in the pod door,” she said. “Both times, I texted my roommates and asked if they would let me in. The first time, they didn’t have to. The second time, one of them asked me, ‘Where are you? I don’t see you.’ I texted back and said, ‘I’m in the cluster lobby right outside the pod.’ Her roommate said, ‘That’s where I’m looking and you’re not there.’ Well, I wasn’t going to argue with her.”

Park thought maybe she walked into the wrong cluster. She said she did not understand how she stepped into the wrong cluster, but she was still open to that possibility.

“I was going to check other clusters in the building,” she said. “I was ready to be adventurous if I had to. I felt brave.”

As soon as she began walking around, the realization hit: “this might be Covington.”

Park said she was not scared because she thought that she was in the right dorm. Although there was a drastic thermostat change and her dorm key was not working, she assumed the building made minor adjustments.

“I know every one of them should have been a red flag,” she said. “The entrance was way narrower than normal and the heat in the cluster, the whole thing was wrong.”

Eventually, someone passed by her and she got her attention, where she got confirmation. She was in Covington.

“Then I asked her, ‘Do you mind walking me back to Hawthorne, please?’ By this point, I was feeling like ‘this is weird,’ but at the same time, slightly disturbed that this person, who I trusted dropped me off at Covington.”

The girl agreed to get a couple of her friends to walk Park to Hawthorne. After that, she explained that everything was fine.

“I felt like I still had the situation under control,” she said. “With most of my experiences here at UNA, if I have ever got off track or been lost, people have always been willing to help me get back on track. I knew if this girl couldn’t do it, someone would eventually come around and I would eventually return to Hawthorne.”

Park said she also had another plan mapped, where she would call a resident assistant on duty or the police.

She accredits her parents and her past experiences for her headstrong personality.

“I was originally born in Russia, and then I was adopted by an American couple who are missionaries,” Park said. “They met me when I was 4. They saw me in the orphanage. My dad said it felt like an invisible hand was pulling him into the same room of this orphanage. The director of the orphanage told them that they had a little, blind girl in the back and there I was. It was me.”

She said they lived in Russia for six years until she finished the third grade. There had not been any more education for the blind pass the third grade, so the three of them moved to Huntsville.

Park attended the Alabama School for the Blind, where they noticed that she was a little behind in reading. Not only did she learn how to read English braille, but she learned how to do everyday things.

“I would have never learned independence if I had not been there,” she said. “I would have never learned how to make my own bed or how to do my own laundry. They even taught us how to cook.”

She graduated from the Alabama School of the Blind in 2015 as valedictorian and attended UNA in the fall. This was a huge transition for her because not only was it new and new routes had to be learned, but the UNA campus was a lot bigger than the ASB campus.

“That was a shock to my system, but luckily the mobility coach, who works for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services and the state, and my dad started working on this with me right after SOAR,” Park said. “We worked on it the whole summer about twice a week so luckily we got to get it into my system before the semester ever started. We developed a lot of landmarks and I still use them too.”

The sound of the fountain was one of her landmarks before they had begun to shut it off in winter. Now, she relies on the roughness of the sidewalks to tell her how far she could go.

“I had to start in the summer. If I hadn’t, my dad would have been walking me around everywhere,” she said. “We wanted me to be as independent as possible as soon as possible.”

Park said she can ballroom dance when she is at home. Furthermore, when she was at ABS, she played the violin, the piano and sang in the chorus.

“I like to go fishing,” she said. “The very first time I caught a fish, it was my first time being in America. In 2003, we went fishing. We did fly fishing then, which is a lighter pole and you have a fake fly on the hook that you use as bait. You catch really small fish with it called bream.”

Park said the first time she ever caught one; her dad let her hold and feel the fish so she would know what a fresh fish felt like.

Her earliest memory with her hands was her Russian nanny teaching her braille.

“She was like an interpreter and she helped raise me,” Park said. “She taught herself braille so she could teach me and used this pegboard to demonstrate the braille cells, the dot positions. I remember learning that.”

Park said during this same time, she hated reading braille because her nanny made her read a lot of books.

“I remember this one day we read for it felt like three hours and I read and read and read,” she said. “I remember walking up to my mom and telling her, ‘my hands are tired.’ They were. They were very sweaty and she told me to rest them in cold water, which really helped.”

However, Park’s nanny helped her learn the spelling out of English braille, aiding her in some of the transition with the V and W.

“There are just so many people who have helped me along the way,” she said. “It’s not like there is one person. My mom is one of them. She is a very persistent, very determined person. Lately, she has had lots of health problems and yet when she’s able, she still keeps going and doesn’t let it stop her unless she just doing terribly.”

Park said her dad has been helping her apply for the clinical mental health counseling master’s program.

“He’s taught me to have more of a sense of humor than I’ve had in the past,” she said. “He’s taught me a form of joking, which is basically using the person’s joking pattern and throwing it back at them. His jokes aren’t always funny but I have learned to joke back. I can’t see people’s facial expressions. Then, I was just very literal back then and I can only go by the tone of voice. Sometimes, it sounds like someone is being mean when they really aren’t.”

Park said her adopted brother, who was once a therapist, inspires her.

“Definitely the professor here too,” she said. “The more I learn about psychology, the more interesting it has become.”

She said she realized it is not just about sitting there and talking to somebody. Instead, there are so many different kinds and subfields in psychology.

“And it’s helped me learn about myself and what I think,” Park said. “The problems we do have helped me to understand that my brains works just like everyone else’s does.”