Lillian Scaife never thought she would graduate college—let alone at 61-years-old while being blind.
The Long Beach native, who just received her cap and gown from the University of Phoenix, was deemed legally blind in 1968 while a junior at San Pedro High School. High school years are already awkward as teenagers find their philosophical and social identities, but Scaife faced a doubly difficult time: having battled with primary congenital glaucoma (PCG) since birth, Scaife had to deal with not just finding herself, but building those identities around an increasing loss of sight.
“We were playing baseball—I always played center field,” Scaife said. “And I had my mitt up. I saw the ball, I was watching the ball—and then I didn’t see it. It ended up hitting me in the face… The team was a little upset, but to think back on it now knowing glaucoma: the field of vision goes in and out—which is what happened that day.”
That day was the beginning of the end of normalcy for Scaife. Up to that point, though her vision was weak, it wasn’t entirely debilitating. However, PCG—particularly given that Scaife’s wasn’t noticed until she was in the 4th grade—slowly builds. By the time vision problems are reported, the damage is often extensive.
PCG is caused by increased pressure in the eye due to the imbalanced buildup of eye fluid, or aqueous. In a healthy eye, aqueous is drained and refilled continuously; with PCG, the fluid builds up, eventually damaging the fibers of the optic nerve. Come junior year of high school, the pressure in Scaife’s eyes had hit such a point where suddenly, in her words, “everything was a big blur.”
Her focus in high school at the time—business—had to be altered due to her inability to maintain the bookkeeping class. Special large text books had to be brought in and Scaife’s self-esteem took a massive blow.
“I didn’t feel like my other friends,” Scaife said. “I tried to hide the fact that I couldn’t see well—the stairs once blended and I fell and… On and on. Even my best friend to this day, Wanda, I tried to avoid because I didn’t think my friends could understand my vision loss or what I was experiencing.”
Of course, Wanda loved Scaife—and Wanda, according to Scaife, cried at the thought that her friend felt excluded to such an extent that friendship was deemed impossible. Without knowing what was going on, Wanda was just as confused as Scaife, particularly when the time came to graduate high school and move on.
“My friends were all going off to college immediately from high school—and I didn’t know what was in store for me,” Scaife said. “I was told by a counselor for the blind what jobs I could do—and there weren’t very many.”
Scaife says that helping people was in her nature, so she avoided the common profession many blind people take on—transcribing—in favor of working for a nonprofit neighborhood center in Long Beach. This position only lasted a year and afterwards, she started with the aerospace company Rockwell, where she spent nearly three decades working her kongest-running job.
However, that one-year stint with helping people never quite left Scaife.
“I still was interested in human services,” she said. “I wanted to work with people—and that meant going back to school after all those years at Boeing. And I wanted a school that wouldn’t take me forever with semester-long courses.”
The worker-logic of University of Phoenix is what attracts many to the institution: it is streamlined in order to work for those who want to experience their education at their own discretion, be it online or in a classroom. Scaife opted for the latter, stating she craved interaction within and the patience of the institution.
“They were patient with me, encouraged me,” Scaife said. “This was a dream I had always wanted: a degree—and I wanted to do it fast. I am not getting any younger. But I didn’t want to do it online; I wanted the classroom, the interaction, the students, and the professors.”
Even more, the institution’s flexible design helped her to continue even after the passing of her mother on Christmas Eve of 2012—something Scaife feels would have caused too much of a rupture within the schedule of a traditional university.
Ultimately, Scaife—after decades of dreaming, hoping, and struggling—walked with her cap and gown on and degree in hand, with her trusty service dog, 11-year-old yellow lab Caitlin, right by her side with her grandchildren watching.
“Education is wonderful because the one thing people can’t take away from you is just that: your education,” Scaife said. “Whether you’re old or young, time moves on. No matter what your dream is, you need tenacity and motivation to do it—or else you’re gonna find yourself a few years later down the road and what you wanted to do could have already been done. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, y’know.”
Photo courtesy of Lillian Scaife
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