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Margaret Peace - Oppenheim Trust Recipient 2000

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MARGARET PEACE - NORTH SHORE OPPENHEIM TRUST RECIPIENT 2000

With a father who ran a gas appliance testing facility, a mother who is a nurse, and a brother doing a Masters in physics, it should come as no surprise that Margaret Peace excels at science.

A second-year BSc student at the University of Auckland, 19-year- old Margaret's perfectly at home in a physics lecture, chemistry lab or calculus tutorial. It's just that sometimes she has difficulty seeing in them.

Margaret has been named as a recipient of the Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust, one of 28 blind and sight-impaired New Zealand students nationwide to receive education grants this year.

The trust was set up 11 years ago by Dr Leonard Oppenheim and his wife Virginia on their 50th wedding anniversary and is administered by the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind. The Oppenheims, an elderly Waikanae couple, have both had to deal with sight impairment in their own lives.

Dr Oppenheim is a Harvard graduate and was a professor of law in the United States for 40 years. He has been virtually blind for the past 30 years and his own tertiary education was possible only because of a scholarship, having been raised in New Orleans by immigrant German parents on a working class income. "I also had to study and teach while blind, so I know the kinds of pressures on these people trying to study", he explains. "It's difficult for all students, but when you have a disability you have to work 10 times harder. It takes longer to get materials and then to access them, and it's even harder to gain employment unless you're outstanding. That's why we're keen to help those who have the motivation to do well. They need a break."

As an albino, Margaret can't see well enough to drive a car. Albinos are deficient in melanin, which not only gives skin its colour, but is critical to sight development.

"I have 6/60 vision, which means I can see the same amount of detail at six metres as most people can see at 60 metres", she explains. "I wear thick glasses, but in lectures I need to use a miniscope (a small telescope offering 6x magnification) just to read the blackboard, even from the front row." But it's not the lecture hall so much as the chemistry lab that presents challenges for Margaret.

"In one chemistry experiment I was required to pour an ampoule of a pretty noxious chemical, which gives off a poisonous vapour, into a test-tube. That all had to be done in a fume-hood, which means I had to work at arm's length. But I have a lot of difficulty judging distance, so for a ghastly second there was a chance I could have poured the ampoule out onto the bench! But our lab demonstrator was onto it and came over to give me directions.

"Fortunately that was an isolated incident. But often I do have to ask a demonstrator if, for example, I've dissolved all of a substance. They're very understanding and helpful with situations like that. And I haven't actually broken anything yet - let alone blow up the lab!"

At home, a computer and closed circuit television enables Margaret to study, while she gets all her course texts copied into a large print format. "The university gets my lab manuals enlarged for me, which is great," she says. "At the start of the year it made some of the other students raise their eyebrows in alarm when they saw the size of them - until they realised!"

Her special needs pile extra costs on top of the standard degree course fees, which Margaret describes as "horrible" in their own right. And then there's the necessary expense of catching buses every day between Auckland University and her Glenfield home, since she can't drive. But the most significant benefit of her Oppenheim grant is that it means she doesn't have to seek out part-time work in order to be able to afford going to university.

"That's important to me because, with my sight, I'm a bit slow finishing work and doing assignments and stuff. As a second-year student, you're basically spending 40-hour weeks at varsity anyway, so I need my weekends just to keep up with the workload. During the semester all I do is eat, sleep, study and catch buses!"

Any free time - not that there's much of it - is spent organising the wind instrument hire at the Glenfield Music Centre: in return they provide her with a small grant to help with her studies, but it's basically volunteer work.

"Music is my release from study and gives me a bit of balance and fun in my life", says Margaret, who is in the North Shore Youth Band alongside her two brothers. "We went to the National Band Festival last month [July]. I play bass clarinet, and just recently passed my Grade 6 violin exams as well. But it was a bit crazy trying to fit everything in."

Now, however, her mind is squarely back on science, with her end- of-year finals and a major decision looming. "I have to choose whether to major in physics or chemistry next year", explains Margaret. "That's my big dilemma at the moment and I have to make up my mind soon!"

Her midterm exam results may help: she got straight As in chemistry. But either way, she knows she chose the right degree. "I've always loved science. To me, if you're writing an English essay it's all interpretation, whereas science is based on exact facts and you have to be able to reason and to prove them. It's the challenge of being compelled to think."

In total over $35,000 in Oppenheim Tertiary Education Grants have been distributed to New Zealand students this year, but the Oppenheims say they are always keen for more people to contribute to the trust so that they can help still more sight-impaired students.

If you would like to know more about contributing to the Oppenheim Tertiary Education Trust or creating a trust of your own, contact any member of the Funding Development team or contact the Treasurer, Frank Claridge. ENDS

MEDIA RELEASE FROM THE ROYAL NEW ZEALAND FOUNDATION FOR THE BLIND

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