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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI grad student overcomes blindness to finish at top of class
Internship encouraged minorities to become bone marrow donors

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 14, 2001 -- When Aleatha Dickerson of Providence receives her master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island during ceremonies later this month, she’ll also be honored with the Burrows Younkin Outstanding Clinical Laboratory Science Graduate Student Award. Dickerson can be especially proud of this honor, because not only did she study her way to the top of her department while juggling four children and a job, she did so with the added challenge of being blind.

Dickerson suffered from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome in 1987, a fairly rare allergic reaction that often results in scarring of the corneas, and which ultimately left her blind. At the time she already had a bachelor’s degree and was working at the blood bank at Rhode Island Hospital. Following a long recovery period and with the full support of her husband, Keith, she decided to continue her education.

"The first thing I had to do was refresh my typing skills and learn how to use a computer," she said. "My coursework required a lot of reading and note taking, none of which I could do on my own. I couldn’t see the overheads or the handouts either."

But thanks to state Vocational Rehabilitation Services, she was able to purchase an electronic notebook that speaks the words she types and a scanner to input the handouts. She also found that many of her textbooks were already available in audio format, and a volunteer reader from Insight recorded the rest of her books for her.

With help from her URI advisor Gregory Paquette, director of URI’s Clinical Laboratory Science program, Dickerson established an internship at the Rhode Island Blood Center aimed at recruiting minorities to register to become bone marrow donors.

"People who need a bone marrow donation are more likely to find a match with someone of a similar heritage," said Dickerson, whose heritage is both African American and Native American, "but there aren’t a lot of minorities signed up with the national marrow donor program. If more were signed up they’d be more likely to find a match."

With her plan in place, Dickerson met with the directors of cultural diversity programs at local colleges who introduced her to various groups on campus. Her recruitment drive also took her to health fairs, pow wows, heritage festivals and numerous other public events that draw large diverse crowds.

"There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done," she said, "but once word began to spread about the project, interest in the marrow donor program grew."

Now that her master’s degree is complete, Dickerson is faced with deciding what to do next. She enjoys her current job at the state Department of Human Services, where she is a rehabilitation teacher for older people who have become blind, but now that she’s completed her degree in clinical science, she also wants to work in that field.

"I’m going to be exploring my options to see where else in the state I might fit," Dickerson said. "One option I’m interested in is working with HIV patients, because many become blind."

Wherever she ends up, she’ll be bringing along her seeing-eye dog, Pria, a black German shepherd. Pria attended all of Dickerson’s classes and became the department’s unofficial mascot.

"Pria has a lot of personality and everyone really likes her," Dickerson noted. "But she got a little whiny whenever there was applause in class."

If that’s the case, then it’s likely that Pria will be even noisier when Dickerson crosses the stage to accept her degree.

For Information: Todd McLeish 874-7892

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