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One Step at a Time: Yelena Chepurina Gets to Know the Campus

Along with all the excitement and anticipation, most Mount Holyoke students begin their college career with a few uncertainties: Who will my friends be? Will I rise to meet new academic challenges? For Frances Perkins scholar Yelena Chepurina, who will enter Mount Holyoke as a junior this fall, all such questions are in the background as she focuses her attention on a single task: “My goal this summer,” said Yelena, “is to be familiar with the campus and know where my classes are.”

For Yelena, who is blind, learning her way around the Mount Holyoke campus is another challenge in a lifetime of hurdles. Her sight has worsened progressively since childhood due to the hereditary disorder retinitis pigmentosa.

This summer Carole Wilson, a certified orientation and mobility specialist from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, is working with Yelena to help her learn to navigate the campus independently, with the use of a folding white cane and a complex set of instructions that Yelena hopes to have memorized by the time September 8, the first day of classes, rolls around.

So far, the route to Blanchard Campus Center has been Yelena’s biggest challenge. “There are the most confusing pathways to that building. So many turns!” she lamented. By contrast, her former school, Holyoke Community College, was easy to navigate: “There, you walk inside for the most part. I wore high heels with no trouble. But here at Mount Holyoke, oh boy! I’ve already been shopping for flat shoes!”

"Walk straight ahead, follow the grass line, and turn at the third opening,” might be a typical sequence—one of dozens that Yelena must memorize in order to find her way around campus. To this “inner map,” Yelena must add a multitude of cues in order to remain oriented as she travels from building to building: environmental noises such as passing automobiles or air conditioners, a branch brushing her cheek, the way blacktop feels and sounds in comparison to a cement surface as her white cane brushes across it

Yelena worries about how conditions will change once classes are in session and as the seasons change. “When there are more people, I lose my concentration because I don’t want to bump into anyone,” she laughed and mimicked, “ ‘Here comes the blind woman! Get out of her way!’ In the winter, even though they shovel the snow, it’s going to be confusing.”

"Yelena is a little nervous about the transition to Mount Holyoke,” said associate dean of students Elisabeth Hogan, “but she is very determined, very strong willed. She has a great outlook.”

Born and raised in Kazakhstan, Yelena is used to navigating changes. She immigrated to the United States when she was 19. “I wanted to get out of there because of the lifestyle, the inconveniences,” she said. “And of course, everybody wants a better life and new beginnings.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991–1992, the social and economic fabric of Yelena’s world had begun to deteriorate. “Everything got chaotic,” said Yelena. “There were no permanent jobs. We were living without gas and electricity all year long. We cooked our meals outside on the fire. In the summer, it was kind of fun, like camping. But winter? I laugh now, but I lived in these conditions.”

Yelena was the first of her immediate family to immigrate. In 1997, her parents sent her and her husband, Sergey, ahead to learn English and pave the way for the rest of the family.

She was also the first in her family to go to college, an idea that once seemed far-fetched to Yelena, whose school in Kazakhstan had been unprepared to accommodate the needs of a visually impaired student. “I could come or I could not come,” she said. “No writing assignments. No reading assignments. I just relied on my memory, and what I learned, I learned.”

Once in the United States, Yelena quickly moved from ESL classes at Lutheran Social Services in West Springfield to Holyoke Community College. In 2001, she gave birth to twins. A year later, she returned to HCC to finish her liberal arts degree with a near-perfect grade point average and two independent research projects to her credit.

While friends and advisers encouraged her to take her education to the next level, Yelena was apprehensive about entering yet another new world. “But,” she said, “I had to learn.” Yelena chose Mount Holyoke, and the College chose her as this year’s Harriet Newhall Scholar, an honor conferred each year on the top-ranking applicant from HCC. Said Kay Althoff, director of the Frances Perkins Program, “Her positive spirit is amazing. First she had to learn to navigate a new country, now a new campus. I am fully confident she can do it.”

It has been an amazing journey for a woman who arrived in the United States eight years ago with no English and little formal education. “I didn’t think that I would graduate from HCC and come here to Mount Holyoke. Maybe it’s because everything is new to me. I take one step at a time. Whatever comes, I embrace it or deal with it.”


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Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.