Sammie and Princess are doing just fine, thank you. So fine that Sammie Duerring doesn’t quite understand the fuss.
True, her first year at Meredith College in Raleigh required some adjustments for this Union Pines honors graduate. The intellectual atmosphere was more intense, requiring deeper thinking. She had never lived away from home. She didn’t know anybody. As with most freshmen, occasional panic happened.
But Sammie isn’t like most freshmen. Sammie is blind. Princess — her roommate and constant companion — is a Bernese/Labrador guide dog.
Last November, The Pilot chronicled Sammie’s transition from home to dorm, from familiar and safe to new. Now, a progress report on this unusual and inspiring young woman.
Recap: Samantha Duerring, the fourth child in a military family, was born 12 weeks premature, weighing a bit more than 2 pounds. At three months she was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Although legally blind she was able to discern light and shadows, also bright cartoon characters if held close. This ability has faded.
“I was devastated,” said Judy Duerring, Sammie’s mother, of the diagnosis. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I prayed a lot and kept researching.” Sammie handled it better; her third grade teacher told Judy “Your daughter has what it takes.” Later, she was described as academically gifted.
Outside the classroom, life was less fulfilling.
“I used a cane,” Sammie said. “People avoided me like the plague. I’d just sit in a corner.”
Everything changed when, at 13, Sammie was paired with a MIRA dog. MIRA, a Canadian nonprofit founded in 1981 for the purpose of breeding, training and matching guide dogs with visually impaired 11 to 18-year-olds, is the only organization serving children. MIRA Foundation USA, established in Pinehurst in 2009 by Bob and Elaine Baillie and Guy Bouvier, provides dogs free of charge to children nationwide.
The impact was enormous: “Having a dog gives you freedom, like having a car,” Sammie says. “A dog is a bridge, a right arm, a friend.”
Sammie chose Meredith because of its relatively small fenced-in campus, all-female student body, and location; freshman year she came home every weekend. She was assigned a single room near the dining hall. Adjustments — like toileting stations — were made for Princess. They practiced routes to classroom buildings.
“If I need help I just ask someone,” Sammie says. “But there comes a point when I want to say ‘Thank you, but I can do it myself.’”
During the 2016 interview Sammie admitted some initial apprehension: “Not being a little nervous is akin to arrogance,” she said, describing her first night in the dorm as “A mix of wow, this is awesome and what did I get myself into.”
Into the dean’s list, for openers.
Looking back, Sammie says it took a semester to settle in. After that, “I’m good.”
Sammie returned to Meredith more than good. She moved out of the familiar freshman dorm like everybody else. Princess, she reports is “the most popular girl on campus.” She does her own laundry and no longer comes home every weekend. The only place she needs help is in the dining hall, where even a sighted person might have trouble managing a tray and a dog’s harness.
Sammie and her father attended the annual Father-Daughter Dance. She sings in the chorus, with Princess accompanying her onto the stage. Her courses, which as a freshman she described as more intense, have doubled down: this pre-med biology major is also studying Spanish, history, chemistry (including lab) and others aided by an iPhone, iPad and recorded lectures. She plays the guitar, excels at archery, is certified in CPR, loves camping and is interested in astronomy.
“I’m thinking about taking calculus even though I despise math,” Sammie admits.
“These courses are challenging even for the sighted,” says Carolyn Konig, assistant director for Disabilities Services at Meredith. “We provide tactile graphics which turn visual imagines into something Sammie can see with her fingers.”
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disabled student who qualifies for admission must be accommodated. Sammie, Konig continues, is highly regarded by her classmates and professors.
“She’s such a hard worker. She helps educate the whole community.”
For Sammie, the saddest moment of her freshman year was learning of Bob Baillie’s death in January. She spoke at his funeral.
“Now, he’s with the angels, where he can see everything he has accomplished,” she says.
After a year away from home, Sammie observes changes in her own thought and behavior patterns: “I’m better at doing things for myself. It used to creep me out, going to the store and asking for something.”
She has made a best friend. They go off campus for pizza. Other classmates admitted they weren’t sure how to talk to her. “Now, they know I’m just like everyone else.”
That said, if the scholarship comes through and the stars are aligned, Sammie and Princess will attend a semester in Italy, where Meredith has an exchange program. Afterward, the gifted, motivated student who bridles when classified as disabled must concentrate on her pre-med curriculum because, Carolyn Konig predicts, “Sammie’s going to go far.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.