When Lizzy Koster graduated from Hendrix College in Arkansas, she took a job as an assistant at a political consulting firm. It didn’t last long.
“Politics wasn’t what I imagined it would be,” says Koster, an NIU College of Education graduate student with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology.
Because she had always nurtured an interest in health care, she soon found herself working at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Her skillset quickly grew to include the processing of medical paperwork, knowledge she deemed valuable for future endeavors.
Yet another career – one woven into her DNA – beckoned.
“Education is a family business of ours,” says Koster, a native of Elmhurst, Ill. “My aunt went through the NIU Vision Program, and she went on to work in the Chicago Public Schools. She called me and said it would be a great fit for me. Kapperman actually called me, too.”
Kapperman is Gaylen Kapperman, who joined NIU’s program in visual impairments in 1974 and remains active in the Department of Special and Early Education as a Professor Emeritus. He and colleague Stacy Kelly are relentless recruiters for the graduate programs, which offer free tuition, fees and health insurance along with stipends to woo more professionals into a critically understaffed field.
Now Koster is on her way to a career as a teacher of the visually impaired and as a specialist in assistive technology as well as orientation and mobility. She also has joined Kapperman in conducting research and writing several manuscripts, one of which has been accepted for publication in a referred journal.
“Vision is a good fit for me,” says Koster, 27. “I love working with people and with different cultures, and when you work in special education, it’s kind of inevitable. You come in contact with kids from different backgrounds, and you have to come at them with an understanding approach.”
Gaining early experience through substitute-teaching at the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County has provided confirmation of her new direction.
“I feel like educators, in public schools specifically, are so pressed to get the right test scores,” she says.
“But with vision, although our students might participate in that statewide or national testing, their benchmarks are so different. Vision is not so much about grades but in giving them life skills and even social skills. Seeing them make a friend is such a big deal,” she adds. “Their goals might not translate to academic grades but to really improving their quality of life, and being able to watch them achieve their personal goals is so exciting.”
She also is eager to exercise her love of languages.
Her interest in learning Spanish began at age 3, when her grandfather gave her a book about Mexico. Her fluency blossomed as she studied Spanish from second-grade through high school.
As an undergrad at Hendrix, she enrolled in a course on social justice and human rights in Argentina, traveled throughout the region and spent her junior year as a study abroad student in Brazil. Before embarking, of course, she taught herself Portuguese.
During the summer after her junior year of high school, she studied in Spain.
One summer later after her graduation, she volunteered in Paraguay, where she learned the indigenous language of Guarani.
True to form, she also learned Braille on her own before coming to NIU in August 2016.
Language, naturally, is the focus of research Koster has conducted and presented with Kapperman at the conference of the Illinois Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“Kapperman is interested in a research project using a screen-reading technology for those who are completely blind or who need that vocal feedback,” she says. “We’re also working on figuring out Google Translate and other means of using screen-readers for those who are learning a foreign language or for whom English is not a first language.”
Following her graduation in August 2018, Koster won’t close the book on college just yet.
She plans to earn a doctoral degree that will prepare her for administrative roles in special education – that’s where her experience in processing medical paperwork will come in handy – or to serve as an advocate for teachers.
“My biggest interest is in benefiting the system, helping all of the working parts – students, teachers, aides and assistants, families – to operate a bit more smoothly,” she says.
But the advocacy role might tackle an even greater concern, she says: teacher burnout.
“If there’s a way to make people stay in the field, that’s ultimately helping the students, too. They need that longevity and consistency,” Koster says. “If I could help people to achieve that, then that would be great.”