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Monday, Mar 25, 2019
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She's 17, blind and a professional violinist. Now, she has a college degree.

SPRING HILL - A month into Maria Witherell's statistics class last spring, the projector started shaking. Witherell, a professor at Pasco-Hernando State College, wanted to make sure the motion of the screen didn't bother her students. She knew that one of them, an early-enrollment student named Hailey Skoglund, had some sort of vision impairment. So she asked if the projector's movement bothered her.

"I don't know," Skoglund said. "I can't even see it."

"You can't see what's on the board?" Witherell asked. Skoglund had requested a larger font size on her tests and mentioned her condition, nystagmus, but she did her work and never asked for help.

"Should I make it bigger?" Witherell asked.

"No, it's fine," Skoglund said. "I'll just listen."

Witherell got to know this 17-year-old who never called attention to herself or her blindness. How she never showed up late, even when she'd stayed up all night finishing homework while battling migraines. How she solved math problems on a whiteboard in her mind's eye. To a professor who prizes grit and cringes when students call themselves "gifted," Skoglund was remarkable.

Last week, she was one of about 350 students to pick up degrees at the college's winter commencement. She's top of her class at Nature Coast Technical High School and will graduate in the spring, even though she hasn't taken a class there in two years. Next fall, with an associate's degree already under her belt, she'll study business analytics at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

"It was just something I had to do," Skoglund said. "It wasn't perfect. I'm not like this school prodigy."

Skoglund started taking high school classes online in sixth grade to catch up with her older sister, Rahne. The two have been inseparable their whole lives, she said, despite a two-year age difference. She started at Nature Coast with most of the high school credit requirements already behind her, and the sisters started college classes at the same time.

Rahne often acted as Skoglund's eyes in school. Nystagmus causes the eyes to move back and forth, quickly and uncontrollably, and the condition worsens over time. She sees only swaths of color, and sudden motion or light changes can knock out her vision for half an hour at a time.

Her mother, Brenda, taught her early on to visualize her schoolwork in her head and to rely on senses other than sight, even before hers deteriorated.

Other parts of Skoglund's brain compensated: She can recall sounds with tape-recorder-like clarity, which has proven useful in both school and music. She's played violin for audiences including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Sometimes she and Rahne, an opera singer, perform together.

But Skoglund is just as interested in the parts of life that come less intuitively. She hated math until something snapped into focus during Witherell's class. Now, she loves it for the challenge, because thriving in a subject in which she used to flunk tests has helped her redefine what it means to be good at something.

College as a whole has felt like a transitional point, she said. During high school, she refused to walk with a cane for fear that classmates would judge her. In college, she realized, her classmates didn't care.

"They don't look at me as being young. They don't look at me as being visually challenged," she said. "They look at me as a self-sufficient young person."

All the difficult steps fit into a larger timeline. When she moves into a dorm at Florida Polytechnic, it'll be her first time living away from Rahne and Brenda. She'll be responsible for mastering the three-minute walk to class, for pushing herself through migraines.

Then, she said, she'll go to law school and study patent law, which she hopes will be challenging. She wants to go to Harvard.

James Reid has taught music for 40 years, he said, but Skoglund's attention to sound sets her apart from most young musicians. Plenty of students can play what the sheet music says, but the fear of making a mistake turns performances to wood.

Skoglund can't see the notes on the page, and so she has learned to understand the music past them. She hits the right notes, the playback humming through her head, but the steps are in service of something greater.

"She never says to me, 'Was that right?'" Reid said.

Instead, she asks: "How does that sound?"

Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.

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