One@Marquette: Sophomore Sarah Patel Uses Guide Dog on Campus
By: Katie Cutinello
It’s 6:30 a.m. on a rainy Monday in Milwaukee and sophomore Sarah Patel is wakened by the whimpers of a dog from underneath her bed. The cries signal it’s time for Patel to get up and take Shay, her black Labrador retriever, out for a bathroom break.
Eyes half shut, Patel surveys a pile of laundry for the heather-grey sweatpants she slips on every morning. After zipping up her black Northface jacket and slipping on her rain boots, she grabs Shay’s leather leash and exits her McCabe Hall dorm room. Shay leads the way with a perky trot and tail in wag.
“I literally feel like a mom,” Patel said. “Everyone is like, ‘oh I wish I could have my dog here,’ but when you’re the only one taking care of it, you’re not going to say that. She’s a lot of work.”
Patel isn’t the only one with responsibilities though. Shay has an important job to do too.
At the age of three, Patel, 20, was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa – a degenerative eye disease that left her legally blind. Although she can still make out some light, for the most part, Sarah’s world is dark. Shay plays the role of Sarah’s eyes, leading her around Marquette’s bustling city campus quickly and safely.
Michelle Brier, director of marketing and communications at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York, where Patel and Shay were paired, says guide dogs are helpful in more ways than crossing streets or avoiding obstacles – especially for college students.
“A lot of people have formed long lasting friendships over a conversation about their guide dog,” Brier said. “A walking cane is off putting, but a dog invites people in to ask questions. Socially, guide dogs have made a huge difference in the lives of the blind.”
Patel waited to get Shay until her sophomore year at Marquette so that she could familiarize herself with the campus. She’s struggled with making friends along the way, but now that she has Shay, she’s gained more confidence.
“It’s really challenging to make friends,” Patel said. “But now that I have Shay, people come up to me all the time. Everybody loves a dog.”
When it comes to school, Shay’s duties stop in the classroom and the 15-credit hour workload rests on Patel’s lap. But Patel has never had trouble keeping up in class and rarely asks for help. She says the exams, papers and projects aren’t as challenging for her as most people assume.
“Literally everything is done through my iPhone or iPad,” Patel said. “If I didn’t have Apple, I don’t think I would be in college.”
Patel credits Kathy Sledz, whom she calls her "second mom,” for helping her find Marquette. Sledz has been Sarah’s vision teacher since Sarah was in the third grade and often stops by Sarah’s room when she is on campus visiting her two sons.
“Marquette was very gracious when it came to working with Sarah,” Sledz said. “They didn’t just say, ‘this is what we have.’ They said ‘what do you need and how can we do it.’ They were open to trying new things.”
With the help of the verbal test taking software, WYNN, a talking keyboard, and the eyes of friends to read over papers, Patel is well on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a school counselor. She sometimes worries it will be difficult to find a job because of her disability, but says she’ll deal with that when the time comes.
“I can’t change the fact that I’m blind,” Patel said. “Why let it affect me? If you’re going to keep letting something bother you then you’re not going to get anywhere. I am surrounded by great people who support me and that’s what matters.”