Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Cuyamaca College helps near-blind student focus on her goals

Maryam Abdul-Sattar, center,  with her sister, Laiba, right.
Maryam Abdul-Sattar hasn’t let her blindness or a perilous past as an Afghan refugee hold her back.

An honor’s graduate with an associate degree in social work, she is one of the 839 graduates who received more than 1,200 degrees and certificates at Cuyamaca College’s June 6 commencement. 

“I had no option except embracing my challenges in order to convert it into positive energy,” said Abdul-Sattar, 31. She described her life’s travails in a speech during a recognition ceremony for graduates of programs assisting underrepresented students. 

Born with visual impairments that worsened with surgeries and glaucoma as she grew older, the near-blind graduate credits the help she received through Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS) for her graduating with a nearly 3.7 grade point average. She will be starting at San Diego State University in the fall. 

DSPS provides services such as note-taking assistance and test proctoring to students with disabilities and the high-tech center provides assistive computer technologies and alternative media formats for textbooks for students like Abdul-Sattar. Counseling services are also available to encourage and help students stay on a successful path as they advance in their education.

“Through my counseling experiences with Maryam, she has proven to be an advocate for herself and students with disabilities by asserting her needs and advocating for others,” said Associate Professor/Counselor Rachelle Panganiban. “Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Maryam remains highly motivated, proactively seeks out resources, and finds creative solutions while never losing faith in her ability succeed.”

Abdul-Sattar said a lifetime of obstacles has instilled in her a sense of determination and an unwillingness to give up. She lost her father in 2008 to wartime violence, and with his death, Abdul-Sattar’s family, including her mother and seven sisters, had no means of support.  
The family was able to find refuge in the United States in 2014 and a year later, Abdul-Sattar started at Cuyamaca College. She had learned English while growing up, and with the assistance from DSPS, she flourished.

“This is a reality that visual impairment is a hindrance to my education, but studying at this college turned my blindness into an opportunity when I received accommodations and accessibility devices which made me feel quite comfortable and helped me accelerate in my academic career,” she said. “Services provided by the tutoring center, writing center and DSPS made this college an ideal one.”

Beyond academics, Abdul-Sattar’s studies in social work required fieldwork experience. While searching for an opportunity to serve a refugee-serving non-profit, she found her experience limited to translating documents from her home due to her visual impairment.

Determined to do more, she contacted the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization and refugee resettlement agency that provides services and programs supporting refugees, asylum-seekers, immigrants and the needy. The San Diego office is a satellite of the IRC, located in more than 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities providing aid, including clean water, shelter, healthcare, education and more to some of the world’s neediest refugee populations.

“Luckily they recognized my talent and thought that I can be beneficial to them,” Abdul-Sattar said.

She assisted with translations, scheduled meetings and wrote resumes and cover letters for refugees. She continues to serve as an interpreter when needed, since she is conversant in Farsi, spoken in Iran; Dari and Pashto, the official languages of Afghanistan; Urdo, the national language of Pakistan; Hindi, spoken mainly in India, and to some degree, Arabic.

“It was the first time in the United States that I was given the opportunity to gain work experience,” Abdul-Sattar said.

IRC workers have high praise for the now-Cuyamaca College alumna.

“Maryam embodied the IRC way; she provided creativity, dedication, flexibility, and above all else a willingness to do whatever necessary to support the refugee and immigrant community,” said Claire Bergstresser, Grants and Compliance coordinator, who observed Maryam’s work with the IRC, along with Career Development coordinator Mahsa Imani.

Abdul-Sattar said the multiculturalism of Cuyamaca College prepared her well for helping refugees. The diversity of the Rancho San Diego campus is a major reason why she selected social work as her career field.

“Studying in this college helped me understand the importance of diversity and tolerance toward other cultures, race and different ethnic groups,” she said. “Being accepted at San Diego State will fulfill one of my dreams and I’m so happily looking forward to it. To stay persistent in my efforts will also help me achieve my long-term goals of serving the community as a social worker and advocate. I’m so thankful to those who helped me keep going and I would say to them that I will miss them and will remember them forever.”