Student Kelsi Watters’ activities not limited by visual impairment

As the cold weather swept through the Winona campus this winter, freshman Kelsi Watters — like most shivering students — didn’t waste much time getting from building to building.

Watters impressively and swiftly makes her way about campus with a white cane and a memorized route, but she joked that maybe if people saw pictures of her all bundled up, they’d feel compelled to arrange for her to ride in a special golf cart.

Armed with a sweet disposition, a desire to help others and a strong sense of humor, Watters — a Cameron, Wis., native — is quick to tell you she doesn’t consider herself as having many limitations, despite her complete lack of vision.

Kelsi at the switchboard

Although Kelsi Watters has been visually impaired since birth, she is experiencing college life to its fullest including working at the main switchboard.

And her full itinerary proves it. The pastoral and youth ministry major is active with Campus Ministry, has taken a SOUL trip,  serves as a peer note-taker and a liturgical choir member, and works the switchboard at the Info Desk. She’s also a member of the Saint Teresa Leadership and Service Institute for Women and does some mean Zumba® moves — but that’s just the  beginning. Watters takes in most on-campus activities, from presentations to theatre productions to the latest up-allnight fundraiser.

In her spare time, she walks around campus and makes note of any inaccurate braille signs, so she can help future SMU students who are vision-impaired.

The first word that comes to mind is “inspirational.” Clearly it’s not the first time she’s heard someone describe her that way, but Watters shrugs it off. “I still don’t know what to say. I’m touched by that, but I’m just a normal person. A lot of people ask me how it feels to be blind, and I tell them ‘normal.’ Because it does feel normal for me.”

Born with septo-optic dysplasia, Watters’ optic nerves were damaged at birth. Her parents played a strong role in encouraging their daughter’s independence from an early age. When Watters was ready to attend kindergarten, her parents considered taking her to a school for the blind. “But they discovered that everything there was adapted, and they decided it would be better to help me adapt to the sighted world from a young age,” she said. “They knew that when I graduated, things weren’t going to always be adapted for me. They battled to get me into public school. “People say to me, ‘I don’t think I could do what you do if I went blind.’ But there’s a difference between being born blind and going blind because that’s all I’ve ever known.”

This fall, Watters arrived on campus a week before classes started. She and a vision and mobility specialist began learning how to navigate the campus. “I’m not very geographically inclined,” Watters said with a laugh. She explains how she mapped out her route on her Braillenote, a computer note-taker with braille keys. “I made notes like, ‘Go right and follow the grass line until it ends and turn right.’ I count a lot on landmarks,” she said. “And I’m not a straight walker at all. I shoreline, which means I use my cane. If there is a snowless winter, it is God truly trying to help me out because snow travel is definitely harder.”

Watters said her Braillenote comes in handy for doing homework, taking notes and e-mailing in assignments. She can download books and materials on it as well. She also has a talking iPhone that narrates what she is doing on the phone. “I know I have a couple of limitations like driving. But I really don’t have very many,” she said with a smile.

In her residence hall, students are lured into the kitchen by the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies. As Watters carefully removes the pan from the oven, she explains that hanging out in the kitchen is a ritual with her friends Lindsey Honkanen and Cassie Schultz. Mouths full of fresh-from-the-oven cookies, her friends explain the “true ritual” is Kelsi baking, and them eating. Watters lives her life according to the same general advice she would give any others who face obstacles or feel like they “can’t” do something: “You have to make leaps of faith once in awhile.”

It’s the same advice that led her to Saint Mary’s, as she searched for a school that wasn’t too large and that offered the courses she was interested in taking.

But coming to Saint Mary’s was one of those leaps of faith that turned out to be divine inspiration. She is enjoying her living and learning community in LaSalle Hall  and is especially interested in service project opportunities and helping the environment.

Armed with a strong faith, she would like to join the Catholic Church and hopes to one day become a religious and spiritual counselor — helping others find their way from the darkness. “I just want to be able to help people and make a difference in their lives,” she said.

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