"It's encouraging and heartwarming to know that there are individuals who believe so strongly in the blind and visually impaired community," says UCI sophomore Gordon Wong of the Gordon E. Hein Scholarship he received. Steve Zylius / UCI

In October 2015, Gordon Wong was a senior at Mission Viejo High School looking forward to college. But when he visited his optometrist for his annual exam, the course of his future changed dramatically.

“He asked me to put a hand over one of my eyes, and I immediately realized that I couldn’t read as much of the letter chart across the room as I could before,” recalls the second-year psychological science student at UCI.

With a family history of a genetic eye disease, Wong knew what was to come.

He saw a specialist in Los Angeles to confirm the diagnosis: He would lose the majority of his central vision within the next couple of months.

Even with his sight worsening by the day, Wong kept up with university applications and a rigorous load of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes – in order to graduate with his friends and stay on track for college.

He wanted to do something fun while he had some vision left, so Wong and his sister went to Disneyland. “It was a special day,” he says, “because I had not been to Disneyland a lot, and I was still able to see the rides and people’s faces.”

By the time Wong finished high school, he’d been accepted at UCI. But the teenager had heard about the Louisiana Center for the Blind – a residential facility that provides adjustment training for legally blind adults – and contacted UCI admissions staff to see if they would allow him to postpone his start until fall 2017.

“UCI accommodated my request, and I spent the next year learning how to live without vision,” Wong says.

In Louisiana, he completed impressive projects such as using power tools to build a chest in woodshop, cooking a meal for 40 people and creating a PowerPoint presentation.

“Having the support of everyone around me was really important, and the center showed us that blind people can still do everyday tasks – and have fun while doing them,” he says.

That year gave Wong the skills and confidence to begin attending UCI the following autumn – one of 35 sightless and low-vision students on campus. Helping him along is the Gordon E. Hein Scholarship, available to academically eligible blind students with financial need.

“It’s encouraging and heartwarming to know that there are individuals who believe so strongly in the blind and visually impaired community,” Wong says of the scholarship.

Also assisting him is UCI’s Disability Services Center, which offers note takers, audio formats of textbooks and Ring Road Rides – a golf cart delivery service – for students with limited sight, though Wong is reluctant to get around on wheels.

“I want to learn the campus on my own and be independent,” he says. “Understanding Aldrich Park has opened up a lot of pathways, because now I can cut through to get to different parts of campus faster.”

Upon graduating, Wong plans to pursue a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. “I think that as a person with a disability, I can share my experiences with others to help them get the most out of life,” he says.