Graduating blind Queens student prepared ‘to take on the world’

When she was a baby and her retinas didn’t develop, Christina Cosby’s parents worried their firstborn would be limited by total blindness.

Yet before Christina turned 2, they got a surprise. Her grandparents had given her a bag of M&Ms, which she promptly separated by colors and accidentally knocked the green pile down a floor vent.

She cried, shouting her “green ones” were gone. Her family cheered. Christina could see shapes and colors but with little detail.

It’d be the first of many surprises and accomplishments. The latest came on Saturday when she and about 300 other Queens University of Charlotte undergraduates received their diplomas in a kickoff to the commencement season in the Charlotte region and beyond. Her bachelor’s degree is in religious studies.

Despite being legally blind, her family – parents, grandparents, uncle, aunts and younger sister Courtney – were determined to challenge her to try everything.

Nothing was off-limits. Whatever her friends did, Christina would try it, too. She went to the same schools and attended the same classes. She rode bikes, never afraid even after colliding with trees or street curbs. She water-skied and loved to slalom.

“My parents opened everything up to me, and I am thankful they raised me that way,” said Cosby, 22. “It contributed a lot to who I am.”

In the fall, she starts Princeton Theological Seminary on a full scholarship. She plans to train as a hospital chaplain.

That, too, is part of her well-orchestrated plan since high school – when she was diagnosed with leukodystrophy, a chronic illness that often gives her sharp abdominal pains and leaves her weak and fatigued.

“She’s amazing. Things have always fallen into place for her,” said her mother, Carol Ann. “We’ve never, ever, said, ‘You can’t see, so you can’t do this.’ She just keeps hurdling over obstacles as if they’re not there.”

Passion for detail

Cosby grew up in Lynchburg, Va., where her mother is a banker and her father, Peter, manages convenience stores. There, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and an hour southwest at Smith Mountain Lake, where her grandparents owned a lake house, she learned to appreciate the shapes, feel and smells of nature.

Her family supplied the detail: a goose on the lake, or squirrel scampering up a tree.

Now it’s the details that she appreciates.

“I try to dress nicely and pay attention to my appearance,” Cosby said. “I paid attention to nature through my senses, especially at my grandparents’ lake house. You can feel the water and the wind.”

When she was 4, she announced to her parents she wanted to go to church. Her parents told her they weren’t going to church that day and she’d have to find someone else to take her.

She dialed up her maternal grandmother, Jennie Bianco, and began going to weekly Mass at her grandmother’s Catholic church. Each Wednesday, her father’s parents, Presbyterians, took her for fellowship at their Presbyterian church.

“I had this interdenominational conversation going on between the Catholic and Presbyterian churches until I reached confirmation age (in the eighth grade),” Cosby said. “Then I had to make choice.”

She chose Presbyterian. Her grandfather Jack Cosby’s siblings had been Presbyterian pastors.

When it came time to consider colleges, her heart was set on Davidson College, a Presbyterian school. But her father made her go to a college fair, where she found a short line at the Queens table and she struck up a conversation with then admissions counselor Paige Jordan. “We hit it off,” Cosby said. “A couple of weeks later, Paige called me and asked what I was doing for the summer.” She told Jordan she was headed for a Presbyterian Church conference at Purdue University in Indiana.

As it turns out, Jordan was, too, and used the time to lure Cosby to Queens, Davidson’s sister school.

“She was just doing her job and she won,” Cosby said.

Inspiring others

At Queens, she found total support. She was the school’s first blind student in years, and she and the university learned together about how to accommodate her disability.

She got most of her textbooks on audio. Textbooks in Braille would be “about 6 feet tall,” she mused.

When she couldn’t get audio versions of books, her classmates read to her. Carley Martin read to her often. They’d make it special, sitting outside to read or reading over dinner.

Cosby constantly inspired Martin. “She is one of the strongest and most phenomenal women I know,” Martin emailed from Botswana in southern Africa, where she’s studied for the spring semester. “Seeing the challenges she has overcome ... certainly encourages me to be the best individual I can.”

Some of Martin’s best college memories come from those readings. They’ve encouraged her to fight injustices. “It is an injustice that it takes her so long to get a textbook that she can read, or that there is not a better method of learning for blind college students,” Martin wrote.

Professors and staff helped, too. Karen Franklin, student disability services director, worked it out with Cosby’s professor to email her tests, so her laptop could read her the questions. “She’s really helped the campus move forward by having to deal with her issues,” Franklin said.

Queens chaplain Diane Mowrey, a religion professor, recalled asking for three students to volunteer to preach at a Parents Weekend service. Cosby, then a freshman, raised her hand. “She has this willingness to accept opportunity and challenge herself,” Mowrey said. “She’s not scared of anything. She did a great job.”

Her freshman year, Cosby also went on rafting trips that Mowrey led. “I’d never had a visually impaired student before,” she said. “I took my lead from her. Whatever she was comfortable doing, I encouraged her to do it.”

Finding her calling

Cosby made the most of the college experience.

She started Queens’ Disability Awareness Club and pursued a summer internship as a chaplain at a Lynchburg medical center.

Her parents worried about her working with dying patients. But she found “something special about working with people near the end of their lives.”

Because of her disability and chronic illness, she’s spent enough time in hospitals to understand the importance of support. She wants to become a hospital chaplain. “The hospital is where I’m called and where I’m needed and appreciated,” she said. “When I haven’t felt good, people being there with me and offering support made a huge difference.”

Her junior year, she spent seven months in Finland for her study abroad program, required of all students. She’d never flown. Even as her parents sat with her at a Lynchburg airport departure gate, they didn’t think she’d go.

“But they called her plane, and she got up and off she went,” her mother said. “It was one of those what-in-the-world-were-we-thinking moments. We were terrified. But Christina wasn’t at all.”

Cosby went alone. When she arrived, it was 40 below, and she found a school that hadn’t made its campus fully accessible to disabled students.

Never did she think about turning back. Instead, she spent weekends traveling to eight countries to visit Queens students. “I loved being surrounded by something new and appreciating every day for what it was,” she said. “I loved the independence. It prepared me to take on the world.”

Where nothing will be off-limits.

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