BVU Grad Kept Goal Within Sight

Laura Lynn Stangl didn't allow blindness to deter her from raising a family or earning a bachelor’s degree. Diploma in hand, a career in teaching awaits.

The longest pause among nearly 600 names announced during the Buena Vista University commencement ceremony occurred after that of Laura Lynn Stangl, a secondary education major from Ida Grove.

At first, there was quiet, as Stangl made her way from stage right to stage left, shaking hands with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, then BVU President Joshua Merchant.

The applause trickled in sound then grew as 3,500 fellow graduates and spectators reacted in awe, watching Stangl, diploma in one hand, harness in the other.

Stangl walked across the stage with Iseebell, or “Isee,” for short, the guide dog for a 52-year-old who hasn’t allowed blindness to deter her from raising a family, working for Marriott, or earning a bachelor’s degree.

“I have retinitis pigmentosa, which I’ve had since birth,” Stangl says, noting how her rods and cones are deteriorating.

A sensitivity to light marked her formative years. It grew worse as she matured, eventually making it difficult, if not impossible, to see a teacher’s instructions on the chalkboard or overhead projection screen.

“I never did drive,” she says. “I’d miss stop signs. Merging onto an interstate for me could have been fatal.”

Her condition was diagnosed at age 21.

“The ophthalmologist said, ‘We can’t tell you for sure; some people go blind with this, some lose a portion of their vision,” she recalls.

A graduate and her service dog sitting during the commencement ceremony
"Isee" patiently rests on the floor of Siebens Fieldhouse during the Commencement ceremony.

The best prognosis involved her vision staying the same. The worst? Complete blindness.

“In the 31 years since my diagnosis, it’s gotten worse,” she says.

While some distinct areas of her retinas have retained their ability to discern the outline of contrasting figures, it’s a small area, around 3 percent. Stangl has limited peripheral vision.

But, she maintains a position as an at-home agent for Marriott. The Ida Grove resident also tends to the needs of her children, three of whom joined her for the Commencement ceremony at Buena Vista University on May 25.

“As my children were getting into school, I looked for a job and found it difficult in rural Iowa to get what I wanted without a degree,” she says. “My kids were my priority for years, so I didn’t return to school until a few years ago as the children got older.”

She earned an Iowa Central Community College associate of arts degree in 2015 by taking classes online. Harboring aspirations to become a teacher, Stangl looked into BVU and discovered she could achieve her dream through grit and a network of support.

Stangl rode with friends to BVU for classes throughout the past four years. She made friends on campus and found employees and fellow students at the Center for Academic Excellence to be incredibly supportive. When Stangl experienced difficulty in reading a test, for example, CAE Director Donna Musel and Theresa Melohn, administrative assistant, aided in reading or finding ways to convert texts and other materials to JAWS, a screen-reading program she uses.

Dr. Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, professor of history and dean of BVU’s School of Social Sciences, and Dr. William Feis, professor of history, worked with academic assistants to develop tactile maps for Stangl. The Iowa Department for the Blind also offered assistance.

“If you’re a non-traditional student, or need assistance in any way, it need not be daunting. At BVU, the professors care and want to be part of your education. There are scholarships and different kinds of assistance. There’s also nothing wrong in asking for help.”

Laura Lynn Stangl

“We’ve used Legos, 3-D paper, embossing, other ways to allow me to feel what’s being presented, since I can’t see it,” Stangl says.

Iseebell, her yellow Labrador, helped Stangl make her way around campus. If there were times the two of them ended up in or close to the wrong building, staff members and fellow students were always eager to extend a helping hand.

Stangl was a regular at the BVU Chapel service each Thursday. She traveled in January on an Interim experience that allowed her to visit sights where the Holocaust took place during World War II; places that included stops in Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Israel.

“She’s an excellent traveler,” Musel says.

“Being there gave me more dimension, which I’ll need in teaching,” says Stangl, who student-taught in the special education department at Storm Lake High School before teaching history and government at Woodbury Central in Moville. “I now have a fuller vision of those important places, as I can remember the feel of the cobblestone and stone. I have a sense of the crowds in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Traveling there gave me a sensory experience over what books could do.”

Stangl sighs and admits there were times she wondered if she’d make it through BVU, what with the demands of a house at home, 30 hours of work each week, homework, and more.

“I’m proud I made it,” she says. “I’m excited to be a teacher, knowing that I persevered.”

Stangl hopes her presence on stage, making that walk with Iseebell, encourages others to chase their goal through her alma mater.

“If you’re a non-traditional student, or need assistance in any way, it need not be daunting,” she says while sitting in the CAE. “At BVU, the professors care and want to be part of your education. There are scholarships and different kinds of assistance. There’s also nothing wrong in asking for help.”

Laura Lynn Stangl hopes to offer her assistance in directing a special education classroom in the future. She seeks to start and keep other learners on their educational path. She also seeks to continue her journey.

“I want to teach in a special education setting for at least a couple of years to get experience,” she says. “And then maybe I’ll go on to earn a master’s in TVI, Teaching Students with Visual Impairments.”