Gallaudet President Navigates From World Of Hearing To Sound Leadership Of The Deaf Roberta Cordano is the first Deaf woman to lead Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Gallaudet President Navigates From World Of Hearing To Sound Leadership Of The Deaf

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There is another new president in Washington, D.C., at Gallaudet. It's the only liberal arts university devoted to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and the school's newest president is the first deaf woman to lead the university. NPR's Parth Shah has this profile of Roberta Cordano.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Gallaudet University President Roberta Cordano never attended a deaf school.

ROBERTA CORDANO: (Through interpreter) I grew up during a period of time where it was believed that American Sign Language was what they called a monkey language.

SHAH: That's Cordano speaking through an interpreter provided by Gallaudet. She grew up in a Deaf community. Her parents and big sister are Deaf, and so were many of her neighbors. Delavan, Wis., where she grew up, is home to the Wisconsin School for the Deaf. But even though her father was a teacher there, her parents sent her to the local public school instead.

CORDANO: (Through interpreter) They wanted to make sure that their children were going to do well. At that time, you know, it wasn't understood that American Sign Language was a language in and of its own right.

SHAH: Throughout the interview, Cordano whispers out in English as she signs. Going to a hearing elementary, middle and high school made her a pro at reading lips and pronunciation. She never had an interpreter in the classroom. In hindsight, Cordano says it was exhausting.

CORDANO: (Through interpreter) You know, I had worked all day long trying to understand people and focusing so much on what they were saying and then figure out what I was trying to be taught.

SHAH: She says she worked twice as hard as her classmates to keep up, but she didn't burnout. When time came to choose a college, Cordano decided to stay in a hearing environment. She went to Beloit College for undergrad and the University of Wisconsin-Madison for law school. She broke with family tradition. Her parents and older sister all went to Gallaudet.

CORDANO: (Through interpreter) They understood the value of understanding and appreciating the richness of both worlds.

SHAH: While Cordano says she enjoyed her college and grad school experience, she was often the only deaf person in the room. Her experience is night-and-day different from how Gallaudet students live their lives on campus.

ARIELLA DRAMIN: (Through interpreter) It's like another country, really. You know, it'd be nice if we had another country, but, you know, we don't.

SHAH: That's freshman Ariella Dramin speaking through a Gallaudet interpreter. Dramin says being deaf is a culture, not a disability. It's something many people outside of Gallaudet don't understand when they meet her.

DRAMIN: (Through interpreter) I hate when, you know, people, like, at a store try to say something to me, and I say, you know, I can't hear you, then they have this pity face, which is not something I want them to do. We're a community. We're fine. We have a language.

SHAH: At Gallaudet, students sit with peers in the lunchroom. They walk to class together. They carry out their conversations with their hands and facial expressions, instead of spoken words. Gallaudet feels like any other college campus, just quieter. Third-year Savannah Hobbs chose Gallaudet because she doesn't want to rely on someone to translate for her. She didn't enjoy having an interpreter when she was in elementary school.

SAVANNAH HOBBS: (Through interpreter) For example, when I went to lunch, the interpreter doesn't go with me to lunch. I mean, I was completely left out of any kind of conversation. But here, not only can I have my own conversation at lunch, but I can just look over to a table and see what other people are talking about 'cause everyone's using the same language. And that's something I never had before.

SHAH: Even though Cordano grew up in a deaf family, she brings an outsider's perspective to Gallaudet. She spent most of her personal and professional life in the hearing world. Her wife and two kids are hearing. She was the assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota. She's also helped start two charter schools for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

CORDANO: (Through interpreter) When I moved to Minnesota, I actually saw the model of bilingual education.

SHAH: Bilingual education meaning students are given equal instruction in English and ASL.

CORDANO: And so I grew to love and respect that model so very much because I realized it was an option that I was never given.

SHAH: Cordano never had a deaf school experience of her own where she could sign to her classmates and friends, but she doesn't feel like she missed out. She's an optimist.

CORDANO: I think have always navigated two worlds, and I have cherished both worlds.

SHAH: Parth Shah, NPR News, Washington.

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