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'I'm a standard nerd' | Blind East Tennessee student heading to Harvard

Campbell Rutherford's interests and love of learning landed her in the ivy leagues.

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. — An East Tennessee student is heading to Harvard in the fall, but her road to getting there wasn't paved as equally as the rest.

Math is like a second language to Campbell Rutherford.

"I'm a standard nerd I guess," Rutherford said. "I love classical music, math, science and books of all kinds."

She sees everything in a different way, including math equations.

She was born with an eye condition called Leber Congenital Amaurosis, or LCA for short. She sees everything in a blurry grayscale, and can basically see outlines of lights and shadows.

For 19 years, she hasn't just adapted, she has excelled.

"That's just me," Rutherford said. "I like to learn a lot."

From computer keys to ebony and ivory, Rutherford is a skilled pianist. She started playing when she was 4-and-a-half years old.

"About 70% of people with my eye condition have perfect pitch, and I'm one of those people," Rutherford said.

Not to mention, through a screen reader, she can listen to 550 words a minute.

"It's kind of a competition among blind people to see who can read the fastest," Rutherford said.

Classroom curricula didn't come without challenges, though, for this Jefferson County native.

While there were certain teachers and aides who helped Rutherford through the grades, she needed more support and the rural school system just couldn't keep up with everything required.

"It is just a somewhat broken system when it comes to getting accommodations and distributing funding, and all of that," Rutherford said.

At an early age, her parents realized the public school system wouldn't be up to par for what she needed. Sending her to the Tennessee School for the Blind wasn't an option either.

"The School for the Blind is 3-and-a-half hours away, and we didn't want to move," Rutherford said. "Neither my parents nor I wanted me to go there on Sundays and live during the week and only come home on weekends. We have a pretty strong extended family here as well, so we didn't want to be uprooted."

The Rutherford family decided to homeschool. 

"We still received textbooks from the school system in Braille, so I typically only used the math textbooks, and later on the science ones when I got to biology and chemistry."

The technology she needed, like a laptop and adaptive keyboards, came later for her than it would have for a seeing student.

"Once I got the assistive technology training that I needed, I was a junior in high school, and my instructor said there's so much that you're going to have to learn that you might need to take a second senior year," Rutherford said.

Through online learning and in-person classes at Pellissippi State Community College, Rutherford got the instruction she needed.

"Pellissippi's Disability Services is phenomenal," Rutherford said. "They were like Harvard, they were suggesting things that I might need before I even thought of them and were always willing to help. They regularly checked in with me to make sure I had everything that was required."

She got hands-on experience with subjects like science and calculus. 

"[My professor] 3D printed these models for me," Rutherford said. "He says that I taught him to see Calculus a different way, but I think he was already doing pretty good."

Credit: Pellissippi State Community College

Pellissippi State Community College spoke to Rutherford's professor at the end of the semester.

“Parts of calculus are inherently visual,” said Associate Professor Tony Crossland, who had Rutherford for Calculus III this spring. “I’ve taught this course for several years and gotten away with drawing shapes for the students, so I knew it would be a challenge with Campbell because she would need to ‘see’ the shapes.”

This lifelong learner is looking toward the future. For the fall semester, she will be headed to Harvard with plenty of resources in her back pocket.

Harvard wasn't the only school that sent Rutherford an acceptance offer, either.

Tennessee Tech, University of Alabama, University of Georgia, Furman, Georgia Tech, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan and Harvard all wanted Rutherford on their campuses.

The deciding factor for this savvy student, though, was how much money the universities offered and the access to disability services.

"They seem to have had a lot of experience with blind students, there are a number of blind students there already," Rutherford said. "I know that at least two other blind students were accepted in the class of 2026, one of whom is also intending to pursue a STEM career, which is somewhat rare among blind students because there's a stereotype that blind people aren't good at math."

She's ready to make a difference and knows the benefits of being an ivy league grad.

"I'm facing a 70% unemployment rate as a blind individual," Rutherford said. "Harvard was probably the most practical choice."

Credit: Liza Rutherford

She plans to major in applied mathematics, hoping to pursue either biostatistics or cybersecurity as a career. Her vision for life during and after college is focused on helping others.

"I do want to keep working with the blind community to make sure that mathematics and other subjects are accessible to future students," Rutherford said.

She also hopes to one day have a family and possibly work remotely. She noted the benefits the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the blind community, saying it's beneficial to have an influx of jobs where she wouldn't have to navigate transportation.

Given the chance, Rutherford says she wouldn't change a thing about her life.

"Graduated-senior-Campbell also has a lot to learn, but maybe elementary-School-Campbell would have been proud," Rutherford said. "Maybe she wouldn't have believed it either."

For the past 4 years or 5 years, Rutherford has received training in Asheville to help her navigate busy roads, sidewalks and a city environment. She is now capable of navigating a college campus independently.

She is also hoping to apply for a guide dog soon.

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