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October 14, 2008

Swartz Scholarship Arrived at Just the Right Time

Recent UAlbany graduate Rachelle Jean-Baptiste

Recent UAlbany graduate Rachelle Jean-Baptiste was a recipient of the Swartz Scholarship. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

The first day that Rachelle Jean-Baptiste set foot on the University at Albany campus, the snow was up to her ankles, snow was still coming down, and there was a sheet of ice underneath.

It was enough to make anyone want to stay in his or her dorm room. Jean-Baptiste, who is blind, was tempted. Instead, she pulled out the list of campus phone numbers in Braille that she had, and she called Nancy Belowich-Negron of the Disability Resource Center. Belowich-Negron met her at the Campus Center, walked her to classes for the first week, and connected her to a mobility instructor who helped her learn her way around the UAlbany campus.

Jean-Baptiste, now 24, was born prematurely. At birth, she needed more oxygen and was placed in an incubator. However, "both of my retinas were completely damaged as a result of having too much oxygen, leaving me with absolutely no vision," she said.

It was people like Belowich-Negron who made her want to stay at UAlbany. Jean-Baptiste took exams in the Disability Resource Center, where someone would read the questions to her and write down her answers. She was even escorted to Career Services so she could get help with her resume. "Nancy is someone to whom I will be forever grateful," Jean-Baptiste said.

"Rachelle came to the University on 'blind trust.' She had no previous experience with the campus and could not leave her room without someone leading her," said Belowich-Negron.  "But after two weeks of intensive mobility orientation, she roamed our campus fearlessly and went on to the business of being a student. She made an indelible impression on us all."

Jean-Baptiste, of Brooklyn, N.Y., persevered, graduating in May 2008 with a bachelor's in psychology. In her senior year, just as she was trying to decide how to pay for the remaining costs of the semester, she won a scholarship from the Goldie Brenner Swartz '51 and Howard Swartz Scholarship. It was exactly what she needed at the time.

"I wrote them a thank you letter," she said. "I said to them that I was honored to have that opportunity and that I only wish I could be that helpful to someone coming up after me."

Belowich-Negron added, "I am personally grateful to Howard and Goldie Swartz for their generous gift to the University. So many wonderful and deserving students with disabilities are benefiting from their gift."

Jean-Baptiste is an example of the Swartz's donation in action. The couple, who live in Florida, wanted their $300,000 gift to support students who were visually handicapped, though not necessarily blind, or disabled, UAlbany alumna Goldie Brenner Swartz, a retired fifth grade teacher, told UAlbany Magazine. The scholarship endowment can provide funding for tuition, room and board, "and a little more," said Howard Swartz, a retired consultant, when he and his wife established the scholarship. Swartz himself struggled through school because of a visual impairment. The scholarship amount for each student can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on need.

Today, Jean-Baptiste is job hunting, aiming to work with teens and return to school in a few years for a master's degree in counseling. She carries with her that positive attitude that was so successful in moving her forward in school.

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