From Uncertainty to Excitement at the TAPS College Experience

Author: Maxx Ray

The importance of education has always been instilled in my personal beliefs. Though, post-secondary school always gave me doubts — What if I’m not smart enough? What if I haven’t done enough? There were so many uncertainties that floated around my mind, causing me to get way too worked up at the thought of college. I began to over-stress about college, which lead me to bite off way more than I could chew in my junior year of high school. The stress was exhausting because I didn’t know what to expect as I navigated through things I deemed important and college-related entirely on my own. Sure, my mom went to college, but that was 20 years ago, and a lot he changed since then.

My mom found out about the TAPS College Experience through one of her friends she met through TAPS. This friend took her son to the TAPS College Experience the year before. My mom thought that my brother and I could greatly benefit from this opportunity, so she encouraged me to apply. Other than the fact that I wrote essays for every question — my mind was clouded with the anxieties I was facing — I don’t remember much of the process. I did my application for the TAPS College Experience amidst the chaos of everything I had going on. While I wanted to attend, it wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind. That was until my mom texted me, saying that I'd been selected to participate.

“Great,” I thought, not knowing what I had just gotten myself into. I patiently waited for the day my mom and I would leave Florida and head to Virginia. I still had one serious problem, though. I’m legally blind. I have almost no sight whatsoever. I knew it was going to be difficult with accessing materials. I was wrong. It wasn’t a problem at all. The amazing Education Support Services staff reached out to my mom asking if digital materials would be a good alternative for me when accessing the paper materials everyone else was going to receive. My mom and I were both stunned. I realized then that this was going to be an amazing experience. I received every single worksheet in a PDF format that was accessible to me and my unique needs. Outside of school, no one had ever gone out of their way to make sure I was given the same opportunities as everyone else. That’s when I really realized that everyone at TAPS truly cared.


Maxx and her mother on the Naval Academy Tour

TAPS Survivors on the Naval Academy Tour


Campus Tour 

As the experience got underway, I was placed in group two, which meant that I got to tour the United States Naval Academy on my first day. Honestly, at first, I was a bit underwhelmed. When there’s a lot of stuff to see in order to understand something, it’s not very interesting when you can’t see. I turned to my mom and said, “This isn’t very interesting when you can’t see.”

We continued to make our way through the campus and arrived at the chapel. We were taken to the basement to see where John Paul Jones is entombed. A very nice man working there noticed my white cane (which is actually blue) and immediately recognized that this meant I was blind. He invited me and my mom to go into a roped-off section where there was a very detailed tomb. The kind man gave me the opportunity to touch every beautiful detail carved into the stone. He also explained the symbolism of every one of the carvings to me. As I felt every beautiful carving in the stone, I felt honored to have the opportunity to experience the tomb in a way that is accessible to me.

While I would be taking in a lot of information over the next two days, I felt quite prepared. Along with being given digital copies of the papers everyone else received, the staff sent me every PowerPoint being shown in front of the room so I could follow along too. I was even given preferential seating, so I could sort of see the speakers who were presenting. I felt because everyone was so good with accommodating and working with me, that for once I didn’t need to overly advocate for myself like I have to do in many cases.


Big Day 

The day that a presenter from the Department of Education was scheduled to speak about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), the staff really hyped him up. They kept saying how funny he was, so I was pretty excited to see how he would make financial aid funny. To my surprise, he was pretty funny, and I really benefitted from learning more about financial aid; I knew I would need it to go to college and not be in debt for the rest of my life.

Something about fate was on my side that day. While learning about financial aid, I received an email in response to an audition tape I’d submitted to a college. The email stated that I was being awarded a five thousand dollar scholarship, renewable for four years.

Later that evening, I utilized the TAPS Education Portal to help me learn about other scholarship and grant opportunities. Less than a week later, my mom received an email with a list of tons and tons of scholarships that I could benefit from. They weren’t even all geared toward military children or people who have lost a loved one who was in the military. Because I attended the College Experience, my case manager, Kristen, was able to learn a lot about me and what I enjoy. It made me happy that she even sought out scholarships for blind people — she even found a scholarship for blind people in the performing arts, which is so me.


Daughter and her mother on the Naval Academy Tour

TAPS Survivors on the Naval Academy Tour


Excited for the Future

I’m so incredibly grateful to have been allowed an opportunity like the TAPS College Experience. Both my mom and I gained a lot from the TAPS College Experience — planning guidance, financial aid information, and even how family dynamics can change once a student leaves for post-secondary education. I also got many opportunities to talk about what I want to do with my future and what I’ve achieved so far in my life. I feel so much better about getting into colleges knowing what I know now. Learning that there is so much support for me from TAPS has melted away so much of my anxiety about college. I am really excited about the fall and starting my senior year of high school. I knew the road to college wasn’t going to be easy, but it got so much easier for me knowing that there are tons of people who want to support me with both my education and personal dreams.

I want to thank everyone involved with the TAPS College Experience for making me feel so comfortable, valued, and supported. This experience truly has meant so much to me.

Learn more about TAPS Education Assistance and see additional photos of the 2023 College Experience.

Maxx Ray is a surviving child and rising High School Senior.