by SARAH NACHIN
HERNANDO SUN WRITER
At eighteen years of age, Hailey Skoglund has already accomplished more than many people twice her age and has overcome more obstacles than most people encounter in a lifetime.
Hailey was born with a genetic eye disease that caused her vision to progressively deteriorate. Now she is almost completely blind. Yet, that hasn’t stopped her from graduating early from Pasco Hernando State College (PHSC) in December of 2018 and graduating from Nature Coast Technical High School this year as Salutatorian of her class.
She entered the Early Enrollment program at PHSC at the beginning of her junior year in high school and attended classes full time at PHSC. Hailey’s sister, Rahne, who is a year-and-a-half older than her, was already going to PHSC.
“It’s always been my dream to graduate with her. I entered the early enrollment program trying to catch up with her and I did. I attended classes full time there and we both graduated together,” Hailey states.
Attending PHSC was a big adjustment for her.
“I had to count my steps. I went to classes weeks in advance to memorize my steps and to find my chair. I may be visually impaired, but I learned to adapt and function in a different way without sacrificing my independence.”
She was always considered visually impaired. Throughout her childhood, her vision was poor, but it wasn’t detrimental. She never let it stop her.
Hailey’s mother, Brenda, a Radiology Technician at Oak Hill Hospital, worked with the schools to help her adapt.
“My mom is extremely supportive. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader helping me through this process of navigating the school system ever since I was a child.”
When Hailey was in eighth grade her eye disease started progressing. It was a surprise for the doctors because not everyone with this disease loses their vision. At that time, she began studying Braille and taking touch typing lessons. Hailey also took orientation and mobility classes where she learned how to navigate with the use of a cane and how to count her steps. Hailey had her most detrimental vision loss during her junior year of high school. She applied for a guide dog, but was on a waiting list for a long time.
“The hardest thing for me when I lost my sight was accepting it. A lot of people don’t understand the mental and emotional aspects of losing your sight. Seeing is a big part of your life. I didn’t admit it for a long time. I was having this inner battle of whether I want to admit it to myself or whether I want to show people that I have a disability or not. I hated the label my eyes gave me because it made people expect less of me.”
“My sister, Rahne, basically became my “eyes.” In high school we started taking classes together. She helped me make friends. It’s amazing to have her by my side.”
When asked what she misses most about not being able to see, Hailey responds:
“I miss most seeing my friends and my family’s faces. I can’t see who I’m talking to anymore. I miss being able to communicate with people the way I really want to.”
After over a year on the waiting list, Hailey finally got word from Guiding Eyes for the Blind this March that she would receive a guide dog. She flew to New York by herself to meet Marli, a 2-year-old female yellow mini Labrador.
“It was a big learning curve flying to New York by myself. It taught me to be independent very quickly. It was my first time away from my family and first time flying on my own.”
Besides excelling academically, Hailey has also participated in many school activities and organizations. Among them were the swim team at Nature Coast Technical High School, the Chess Club, Phi Theta Kappa and National Honor Society. In addition, she has volunteered countless hours in the community at Oak Hill Hospital, Hospice and Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind, among others.
Hailey is also a professional violinist, having studied the instrument for thirteen years. She and Rahne, who is an opera singer, perform at weddings and other events. Hailey has even performed for Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Marco Rubio and other notable figures.
“James Reid, my violin teacher, has taught me how to feel the music, teaching me in a different way than all of his other students. He’s taught me by touch and by sound after I lost my sight. The most important thing is the sound that’s coming out of the instrument and not so much the mechanical intricacies or the techniques.”
This fall, Hailey will enroll at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland where she’ll pursue her Bachelor’s of Science degree and will study Business Analytics with a concentration in Science and Technology Management. Afterwards, she plans on going to law school and becoming a patent attorney for science and technology.
“One of my biggest challenges in going to college will be navigation. It’s going to be a learning curve routing the classrooms in a new area on my own. Marli will be a big help to me. She is a quick learner!”
Ms. Debbie Stenstrom, Hailey’s AP (Advanced Placement) Literature teacher in high school, introduced her as the Salutatorian at the commencement ceremony.
Ms. Stenstrom described Hailey as “the kind of student that reminds us why we chose to be educators. She is bright, intelligent, articulate, compassionate…hardworking and determined. She is a symbol of hope, of a world of possibilities. A symbol of attainable dreams.”
In addressing her fellow members of the Class of 2019, Hailey gave them some words of advice and inspiration.
“Never be afraid to ask others for help. After losing my sight, this was a new concept for me. I learned, however, that sometimes admitting that you need help shows how strong you truly are. We all need to find our mission in life.”
Haley Skoglund is a stellar example of someone who has not been defined by a disability. She proves that we can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve our dreams and succeed beyond anyone’s expectations.
Watch Hailey and her sister Rahne perform for Una Famiglia, Sons and Daughters of Italy. Hailey on violin and Rahne’s striking opera vocals, stun the audience on Wednesday evening June 12, 2019.