No obstacle too great: Geraldine Browne, Class of 2012
Geraldine Browne (above with her husband Carlos) overcame many obstacles, including being legally blind, to achieve her academic goals. She, along with 2600 others, will graduate from FDU at the university’s 69th Commencement on May 15, 2012.
Story and photos by Dan Landau
When Geraldine Browne walks across the stage to receive her degree on May 15, 2012 at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s 69th Commencement, she will have much to be proud of. The College at Florham senior is not like most of her graduating class.
For starters, she won’t be able to see the other 2,600 graduating students, nor the throngs of cheering parents and friends at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ. It will be difficult for her to even see her diploma. Browne is legally blind.
The mother of three and grandmother of two lost her sight late in life and while it has made her academic journey more difficult, she refused to be discouraged. Instead, the plucky grandmother dug deep into her well of resilience and worked even harder to achieve her goals. Her extra exertions paid off. She will graduate summa cum laude from FDU with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Following graduation, she plans to continue her studies at FDU, completing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.
After she finishes her schooling, Browne’s dream is to work with abused women and girls. A victim of sexual abuse herself, Browne is a survivor and she has a heart to help battered women learn “how not to continue to be a victim and not continue to re-victimize themselves.” Given her past, Browne feels she is ideally qualified to help others, saying “sometimes people understand things better when it comes from people who have walked the same walk they have.”
Browne has been helping people her whole life. Prior to beginning to her psychology studies at FDU, she worked with the homeless and addicted population in Newark. She is also a certified HIV/AIDs counselor. When she lost her job, she says, “I saw it as an opportunity and decided to go back to school.”
She started at Union County College in 2008. A year into her studies, her dream to help other abused women was almost derailed when she suffered two hemorrhages in her left eye. Born with a bad right eye, this setback left her legally blind. “When this happened, there was a lot of crying and a lot of pulling the covers over my head,” says Browne.
However, instead of taking the “opportunity to be depressed and give up,” Browne decided to take a philosophical view of her disability, saying “it happened for a reason and maybe it can benefit somebody else down the line.” Browne says that’s how she tries to look at everything in her life. Her experiences haven’t always “been pleasant, but they made me who I am. They gave me resilience,” says Browne.
Her daughter also encouraged her not to drop out of school saying “your eyes may be going bad, but your brain is still intact. You’ve come too far to give up now.” Browne says she had to keep going because “how can you teach your kids to not give up, and then when it’s your turn, give up? I decided I wasn’t going to drop out of school.”
Browne transferred to FDU, a place she describes as a second home. “I fell in love with this place,” says Browne. She elaborates, even from “my very first visit to the campus, I felt a connection and felt at home.”
Browne has thrived here at FDU. Besides graduating with the highest academic honors, she has also been inducted into several honors societies, including Phi Beta Kappa (the junior college honors society) and the psychology honors societies Psi Beta and Psi Chi.
To get inducted into these societies and succeed academically, Browne had to learn to rely on others, including getting help from note-takers provided by FDU. She also enlisted the help of her husband, Carlos. “He became my eyes,” says Browne.
They formed what she describes as an “accidental partnership” when he lost his job a year ago. Her husband helps her with almost everything, from driving and walking around campus, to taking notes in class, and researching papers. “I can’t read what’s on the blackboard, so he takes notes and explains it to me,” says Browne. “I have not been able to read for myself for the past two and a half years.”
Her blindness is a source of inspiration for her family. Browne’s son Dominiq, a freshman studying math also at FDU’s College at Florham, says of his mother that her disability has “brought out the best in her. She tries even harder because she knows people will look at her and think she can’t do as much as other people, so she tries harder and does more than what everyone else can do.”
As an older student, Browne also had to overcome the usual challenges that face nontraditional students—juggling school with family and maintaining a home. Even with her visual impairment and her studies, Brown still finds the time to cook and clean, and she enjoys creating floral arrangements and decorating for parties. She acknowledges that “being a nontraditional student is hard. But I never felt like I was competing with the younger students. My only competition was with myself. “
While being a nontraditional student has its challenges, Browne also found a silver lining: because of her life experience, she is able to offer insight in class that her younger classmates are not able to. “When I speak in class, the other students listen and pay attention,” says Browne. “I didn’t realize this because of my vision, but a professor brought it to my attention that ‘when you speak, they listen because you are coming from some place that they haven’t been before.’”Although Browne is graduating, she won’t leave FDU just yet. “I’m not ready to leave just yet,” she says. “People ask me why I am getting my master’s at the same place I got my bachelor’s and the reason is, I feel at home here at FDU.”