Student, Dog Graduate Side By Side

May 16, 2004

Like more than 300 graduates before her at Mary Baldwin University’s commencement ceremony, Angela Woolf strode across Page Terrace in front of Grafton Library with the poise, confidence, and excitement about arriving at the crowning moment of her college career.

In front of Woolf by just a nose, her sleek, black Laborador retriever, Writer, was calm and focused.

Guiding her owner, who has lost most of her vision, Writer, a seeing-eye dog, gave the impression that she had been in a ceremony like this before. And she has. The May 16 graduation was Woolf’s first, but Writer already earned her diploma — after completing intensive training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York only days before the pair started at Mary Baldwin.

“She’s basically my baby,” said the 22-year-old Woolf. “I haven’t figured out how to get her to do the homework yet, but she has been in all the classes I have and she deserves to graduate, too.”

The day before graduation, Writer was a proud participant in another significant event in Woolf’s life — as the ring bearer in her wedding. Sunday, the dog was presented with a certificate “for four years of faithful navigation of the steps, slopes and corridors of Mary Baldwin,” a bone tied with a yellow diploma ribbon, and an Mary Baldwin collar.

“She’s such a major part of my life, she has to be involved in everything,” Woolf said about Writer.

When Woolf started to lose her eyesight as a high school junior, she relied on a cane to maneuver around objects. As her vision deteriorated to the point where she had only peripheral vision in both eyes — a common progression of Leber’s Optic Neuropathy, the inherited disorder Woolf has — and she began to prepare for college, she thought a seeing-eye dog would be more helpful.

Writer quickly learned how to lead her owner up and down the tricky steps on campus, through the hallways and straight to Memorial Residence Hall, where they lived for three years.

Because she did not begin a college search until after her vision loss, Woolf, who was a double major in communication and sociology, said finding a small campus where she would be given a “balance of attention and independence” was key.

“I was a very independent person before I lost my sight,” she said. “With Writer, I have been able to get back some of that independence.”

Professors smile when asked about the canine presence in the classroom.

“She was a welcome distraction,” said Bruce Dorries, assistant professor of communication. “She made that happy growl labs are known for, and it broke up the class a little bit and got us refocused.”

The biggest challenge with Writer was fighting the urge to pet her when she was on the job, Dorries said.

“Writer became one of my students,” added Alice Araujo, associate professor of communication and Woolf’s faculty advisor.

Woolf jokes that her companion will be missed more than she will on campus. Professors know better.

“Angela had to negotiate a very complex support network to complete her studies, and she did so while maintaining her independence and unique perspective,” said Daniel Stuhlsatz, assistant professor of sociology, who worked many hours one-on-one with Woolf. “We can all learn a lot from Angela, or anyone with her creativity and drive and ability to deal with the unexpected.”

Her senior communication paper, “Newspaper Coverage of People with Disabilities,” earned academic distinction, and she made the Honors List during her senior year.

“She has a fierce sense of independence, and she took charge of her education,” Araujo said. “Her work was rewarded because it was original.”

An internship at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton convinced Woolf that her perspective was valued and needed. She has applied and interviewed for several jobs, including one that involves testing software that converts text on a computer screen to spoken words — the same type of program she has used for several years. Wherever she goes, it’s clear Writer will be by her side.

“We’re pretty much inseparable,” Woolf said.