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Senior overcomes blindness, challenges, en route to law school

May 19, 2015
KOKOMO, Ind. — A lifetime of overcoming challenges leads Mandy Bagwell to a career fighting for the rights of others, as an attorney and policy maker.

She takes the next steps towards that goal in May, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Indiana University Kokomo. In the fall, she will enroll in law school at Valparaiso University, which awarded her a $10,000 per year academic scholarship.

“I am ready to get my career going,” said Bagwell, from Kokomo. “I have too many people I want to help, and too many policies I want to change.”

She has been blind since she was five years old, the result of a connective tissue disorder. She lost her left eye, and can only see light and shadows in her right eye.

She learned early how to fight for her rights, watching her parents as they fought to enroll her in school, to be sure she was being educated, and for her guide dog to accompany her to school.

Bagwell commuted to the Indiana School for the Blind in Indianapolis each day, and later took advanced classes at North Central High School as well. Frustrated with bullying and not being challenged in her classes, she dropped out at age 16, and soon after earned her GED.

“I skipped school a lot, because I hated going,” she said. “I wanted the quickest route possible to college. I wanted to go on, not spend two more years in high school. I knew I was smart enough.”

Bagwell used to be embarrassed to tell people she had a GED, but now she’s proud to show what can be accomplished with determination.

“You’re not going to find too many people who drop out of high school and can stand there and say, ‘Look at me now. I’m a college graduate, and I’m going to law school,’” she said.

After earning her associate degree in psychology at Ivy Tech Community College, she enrolled at IU Kokomo, planning to keep her head down and just take her classes.

“Going to IU Kokomo brought me out of my shell,” she said. “I was planning to hide, but a lot of the faculty and staff had heard about me, and wouldn’t let me hide.”

With encouragement, she joined the psychology club, was a senator for student government, served as a mentor for another student, and assisted Rosalyn Davis, clinical assistant professor of psychology, with her research. Bagwell also performed her own research, studying how people are rehabilitated within their community after being released from prison.

Her own struggle for rights as a person with a disability, along with studies for her criminal justice minor, piqued her interest in this area of study.

“Everyone deserves equal rights,” she said. “It bothers me that most individuals cannot get housing when they are released from prison. They cannot get jobs when they are released from prison. I’d rather have them living someplace, and pulling their own weight with a job, than homeless, possibly selling drugs, and ending up back in prison.”

Her goal is to work for a large law firm or at the statehouse, in criminal law or policymaking.

Bagwell navigates with the assistance of her guide dog, Roscoe, a black lab. He leads her around obstacles and indicates where there are stairs. Her other senses are sharper than most people’s, so she an also snap her fingers or rattle Roscoe’s lead, listening for the sound to bounce off nearby structures, to determine where she is.

If they get turned around, Bagwell can tell Roscoe to “go home,” and he will take her home to start over.

He can find bathrooms and chairs for her, and can also locate particular people for her – though that has led to awkward moments, including when he led her into a men’s restroom to locate a male faculty member.

Roscoe is her second guide dog, and she brought him home as a puppy. They had a hard adjustment at first, because she was used to her first dog, an older dog that passed away.

“Roscoe was a maniac when I brought him home,” she said. “I went from a 110 pound senior working dog to a puppy who would jump, and defy me, and wag his tail at me the whole time. He is a good dog, though. He’s been a bundle of firecrackers, but I wouldn’t trade him.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 05/19/2015