My SWEP Experience (Student Work Experience Program)  

by Daniel Blair

Student cooking in a kitchen stirring something in a pot.
Student cooking in a kitchen stirring something in a pot.

Why take time away from my summer to go to SWEP?  

 As a visually impaired person, questions about independent living constantly arise! Whether it’s how I am going to succeed in my education and get a job that I love to do, or how I can learn to cook. There are many ways you may feel trapped as a person who is blind or low vision, as though there are tasks or goals you can’t accomplish. I felt the same way, although I’ve had an amazing education, I still wondered, what’s next? How can I gain the skills to be as independent as I want to be?  

Throughout my years of orientation and mobility training, I had heard about a program called SWEP, or the Summer Work Experience Program here in the wonderful state of Oregon. I had heard that the program was very strict, and that it was meant to train students like myself how to be as successful and independent in life as possible. Little did I know that SWEP would be one of the most amazing yet challenging experiences of my life! I had wonderful experiences from having a summer job to learning how to live independently in a college dorm, to just having a ton of fun with friends!  

A wide variety of job opportunities and work experiences  

 I attended the SWEP program for a total of three years, the last year being a quarantine version of SWEP that was highly focused on independent living and job preparation, as we couldn’t live in the dorms or get a job during the COVID19 pandemic. The job experience I gained was wonderful in all three years! There’s plenty of intensive training during the first week of the program, in which you learn how to craft a resume and cover letter, travel independently, and how to be as safe and successful as possible during the program.   

As far as my job experiences go, I worked my first year at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), working in their featured Robot Revolution exhibit in 2018. I had an amazing and fun time learning loads about robots and teaching what I learned to others. In my second year I worked at James John Elementary as a teacher assistant, and I had an amazing time there as well. Although both of the jobs I had were wonderful, I think I would say that working at OMSI was my favorite. Both of these jobs showed me I really enjoy working with others, although I am still unsure about a long-term career choice.  

Independent Living  

 As I mentioned, the focus of SWEP is independent living, so in addition to work, there’s plenty of practice with skills such as cooking, cleaning, and everyone’s favorite chore, laundry. Alright, alright, laundry may not be that fun, but we’ve all got to do it. Before I attended SWEP, I had almost no idea how to do my laundry, how to cook, or how to accomplish the chores or activities that are required to be successful. During the program, I was doing my own chores every week, and we even had a few Iron Chef cooking competitions; the goal was to be as independent as possible.   

With the money you earn from work, you need to buy your own groceries, which can be an interesting challenge when you need to bring your groceries back to the dorms by bus—my roommate and I realized the challenge when trying to cart four cases of Mountain Due back to the dorms. There was a great sale!  

The confidence you’ll gain from a program like SWEP is amazing; I felt a lot more comfortable to help around the house, and I often have to remind my family that in fact yes, I can cook and do my own laundry.  

There’s even time to have fun  

 You may be thinking that this seems like a lot of hard work, and it may sound like a very daunting venture. I would like to assure you it’s not, and in fact, it’s a ton of fun! In addition to being super busy, there’s plenty of free time, and being in the middle of either Portland or Salem depending on the program you’re in, there’s plenty to do. Being in the Portland program, we often went to the mall to shop or go to the ice-skating rink; we would play a variety of games; we would explore parts of Portland we maybe hadn’t been to, and we did so much more!   

My favorite memory was my mom calling to check in one Friday around 10:00 PM. Curfew wasn’t until 11:00, so my friends and I were still out, waiting in line at an ice cream shop; she sounded shocked, but she was glad I was having fun!   

So, if you’re wondering what to do this summer….  

So, if you’re wondering what to do over the summer, or how you’re going to gain the independent living skills needed to be successful, look into similar programs in your area. Washington has the YES program, and California has the Hatlen Center. There are plenty of opportunities for individuals who are blind or low vision to be successful. If you’re interested in attending a similar program, ask around; there’s bound to be a program that will meet your needs. Plus, it’s a great way to network with others for future job opportunities, and a great way to make new friends. So, what is there to lose? Start searching around, and do your best to become as independent as possible; I promise you won’t regret it!