Applying to Columbia University for my graduate degree was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. The application, gathering references and writing my essay took months to prepare. There was no one more shocked than I was when I finally received my acceptance letter months after submitting that massive packet of paperwork. Two years after getting my Master of Science Degree in Social Work (MSW); I became blind, and once again I was tossed back into the application game – this time for guide dog school. I quickly realized that applying to any guide dog organization mirrors the college application process. Here are the “8” ways applying to guide dog school is a lot like applying to college:
8 Ways Applying To Guide Dog School Is Like Applying To College:
- Location, Location, Location: Think back to your high school days when the location of your dream school was just as important as picking your academic major. Maybe you wanted to attend that party school in Hawaii? Perhaps you fantasized about cramming for exams in a quaint little coffee shop at Berkley? Well, when it comes to applying for guide dog schools, location is a big consideration. Ask yourself, Are you willing to travel across the country to be matched with a dog? Can you afford this endeavor independently or is your potential choice of school footing the bill? Are you prone to becoming homesick as you will most likely be away from family and friends for several weeks? Can your spouse or partner hold down the fort (including running a household, working and managing children) in your absence? Answering “no” to any of these questions should prompt you to contact guide dogs schools in your immediate area or those who may offer a home-training option.
- The Applications Are Lengthy: Just like college, every guide dog school has some form of written application – and trust me, it’s no one pager! Schools will ask you to provide them with lots of information. These organizations need to be certain you are capable of the physical and emotional commitment required to care for your dog. Requests for medical information can be quite stringent, asking for disclosure about any current medications you may be taking, previous surgeries and information relating to who and why you see certain medical professionals. Schools will also require records from your ophthalmologist, specifically denoting your current visual acuity and the status of any residual vision.
- Face-To-Face Interviews Happen: You’ve sent in your application and are patiently waiting to hear back with a reply, when all of a sudden your top choice college requests a face to face interview. Sound familiar? Guide dog schools also like to utilize the interview tactic when selecting their candidates. A representative from the admissions department may come to your home to meet with you and your family during the review of your application. I personally applied to “3” guide dog schools and had three in-home interviews. And no, there will be no dogs present during the interview process. (I know, major let down!) What you will get however is the awkward experience of a Juno walk. The gentleman who conducted my first home interview asked me, “Do you know about Juno?” I paused for a second, then said, “You mean, like in Alaska?” (See what that fancy ivy league education got me?) Juno has absolutely nothing to do with the great state of Alaska. A Juno walk is when the interviewer pretends to be your imaginary guide dog and takes you for a walk in your neighborhood. (No, I’m not making this up.) This person will walk beside you, holding the leash and harness next to you as if they are the dog. This process helps the school gauge how fast you usually walk and evaluates your traffic skills (listening for traffic cues and crossing the street).I still have neighbors who like to reminisce about watching me “go for my Juno walk.” Clearly, my Juno walk was as memorable for them as it was for me.
- You Need References: No, seriously. Every application will require references, just how many depends on the school. Guide dog organizations need assurance that you’ve adjusted to your disability and that you’re not some psychopath. (Kidding!) And, just like with college, your mother can not be a reference! These organizations want to be sure you’re a decent human being, someone who will do right by the dog you will potentially be matched with. They also want to know how you will benefit from utilizing the animal as a partner within your life. The average guide dog receives about $40,000 to $50,000 worth of training, including medical care and general maintenance. Considering the combination of these costs and the commitment involved in training these animals; it’s only fair for schools to get to know their potential students as intimately as possible.
- Rejection Letters Suck: There may come a time when you become a little over confident during the application process. Perhaps even thinking, “Yeah, I’m pretty great, what school wouldn’t want me?” Don’t get it twisted, just like college, not every school will accept you. I was rejected from one program and I’m not ashamed to say I was fairly devastated (I too may have been slightly overconfident). This particular school explained they had a fairly broad admissions committee made up of various types of professionals. In my case, a medical doctor on that committee feared my previous cancer history would not make me a good fit for a dog. They had also never had an applicant whose vision loss was attributed to cancer. The doctor’s concern – a dog’s life expectancy was anywhere from 8 to 10 years, what would happen if my cancer did not stay in remission? While I won’t mention the school by name, (I don’t feel like getting sued) the way this situation was handled was atrocious. The fact that my rejection was based solely on my previous cancer diagnosis made me sick to my stomach. Bottom line, the schools have final say on who they give their dogs to. I was told I could re-apply with this particular organization in a year to ensure my cancer had stayed in remission. I declined the offer.
- Acceptance Letters Are Cause For Celebration: Despite the bitterness I felt after my one rejection, I still celebrated my acceptance to the two remaining schools, just as I had done when I was accepted to Columbia. I was elated to be given the opportunity to partner with one of these amazing organizations. I truly believed working with a guide dog would enrich my life and help me regain some of the independence I had lost from my visual impairment.
- Accept Or Decline Schools In A Timely Manner: Once accepted, choosing your school is not something to be taken lightly. My husband and I went back and forth, weighing the pros and cons of each program. We looked at location, time required for training, cost, and my overall comfort level based on the staff I had already interacted with. As with college wait lists, be mindful any delay in communicating your decision to the school could potentially delay other worthy candidates from promptly receiving their acceptance into the program. Be respectful, and let the schools know if you are going to work with them or if you have chosen another option.
- Deferring Your Acceptance Happens: Having second thoughts? Planning a move? Maybe you just need more time to consider your options. Like any good school, deferring your acceptance is possible. I was barely through the first trimester of my surprise pregnancy when I was accepted into both guide dog schools. I immediately contacted the admissions department at each organization to disclose the information. Both organizations were absolutely wonderful, professional and understanding. I was put on a wait list and asked to communicate with them again after the birth of my child.
Choosing Guiding Eyes For the Blind
In the end, we chose Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in Yorktown Heights, NY. Not because they were the closest, but because they offered me a home training option. My husband could not afford to take off the approximately three weeks necessary for me to attend classes on campus. In addition, I was a new mom with no family to help take care of my infant. We began arranging things with the school and had additional home interviews when… I got pregnant again. (It appeared all of a sudden I had become fertile Myrtle.)
Another deferment was granted until I gave birth to my second child. From there it became a waiting game of giving my body a chance to heal after two c-sections, finding the right dog for both my speed and young family, and scheduling time with a trainer who was able to come to my home.
Four and a half years later, Guiding Eyes matched me with Frances. My beautiful, intelligent, wonder of a guide dog serendipitously entered our family! The applications, interviews, rejections, and Juno walks were absolutely worth it because in the end I was paired with a partner who was the perfect for my lifestyle.
If you’re thinking about applying to guide dog schools, I encourage you to trust the process. Embrace those college days once again. You will find the people who work for these organizations are committed to the blind community. They are committed to these amazing dogs and most importantly, they are committed to finding the perfect match for you!