All Signs Point to Success
Deaf students celebrate achievements
Seven GCC students arrived early to the spring commencement exercises in May, eagerly taking their places in the front row. All had something in common, having earned higher-education credentials at GCC. But something else united this group: the shared identity of Deaf culture.
For the culturally Deaf, "deaf,” when written with a lower-case “d,” refers to the physical (audiological) condition of deafness, whereas "Deaf" signifies a cultural label. It’s an important distinction. For rather than viewing deafness as a disability, members of the Deaf community typically view deafness as a difference in human experience and a shared sense of identity, independent of the extent of individual hearing loss. They are proud to be “Deaf” just as one might be proud to be “Italian.”
For this group, the use of a visual language – in this case, American Sign Language, or ASL – forges cultural identity, much as a shared spoken language does for those who speak it.
Commencement brought these individuals together to celebrate not only a shared identity, but a broad spectrum of individual accomplishments. The front-row group included:
- Benjamin Feistner, who earned both an associate degree and an AGEC-A certificate.
- Edward Fishencord, Jr., who earned an Associate in Applied Science, Accounting Paraprofessional with High Distinction.
- Mathew Gray, who celebrated the completion of an Associate of Arts degree.
- Frederick "Ricky" Lindstrom, who received a certificate of completion in accounting, and who will continue work towards an associate degree at GCC.
- Cherelle Livengood, who received an Associate of Arts degree, and who has another major accomplishment on the horizon: This summer, she will become a new mother.
- Jovanie Luque, who majored in accounting and earned an associate degree in Business.
- Maria “Raquel” Velasquez, who garnered her Associate of Arts degree, while dual-enrolled at Arizona State University; she is majoring in psychology.
Benjamin Feistner and Jovanie Luque are among those in this group who have unique personal stories. Feistner has been deaf since birth, whereas Luque started losing his hearing at birth, and was deaf by the age of two. (The term "hearing-impaired" tends to be applied to individuals whose hearing loss is less severe and who have acquired deafness as adults, rather than growing up deaf.)
Feistner says being culturally Deaf – with an upper-case “D” – is signified by being part of the deaf community, using American Sign Language (ASL), and living like the Deaf, which means using videophones and assistive devices and maintaining a sense of humor about deafness. He explains that you are not culturally Deaf if you try to find ways to “fix” your deafness, if you reject Deaf people because you don’t want to be seen as Deaf, or if you communicate solely with your voice and use the phone.
“If you do any of the above, you are what we Deaf people call hearing impaired,” he said. Feistner’s views are consistent with those who embrace the Deaf community and take pride in their shared culture. They are likely to reject the label “impaired,” which suggests that deafness is a pathological condition that needs to be fixed.
GCC provides a supportive environment for Deaf students, including an interpreter supervisor who also provides academic advisement, licensed sign-language interpreters and direct tutoring in ASL.
Feistner, who grew up at a school for the deaf before attending GCC, said his transition to GCC was smooth, with few barriers to success. In large part, he credits MaryJane Nichols, who manages the office of Disability Resources and Services and supervises interpreting services for the Deaf and hard of hearing. “She did an excellent job coordinating the interpreters for me and other deaf students,” he said. “She helped make sure I got the right classes and the right teachers.”
GCC is one of only three campuses in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) that offer interpreter supervisors who provide academic advisement to Deaf students. Both Luque and Feistner took advantage of this service and found it helpful and encouraging.
Feistner says skilled sign-language interpreters provided by GCC helped him get more involved during class by allowing him to answer questions and throw suggestions out to the teacher just like the other students. Direct tutoring in ASL was also helpful for him. “When I had trouble early in the semester with math, the interpreter for my math class became my math tutor; that helped a lot,” he said.
Luque grew up in the public school system. He and his older brother are the only hard of hearing in their family. Like the vast majority of deaf children, they did not have a deaf parent, and their exposure to sign language was limited. It is often later in life that deaf children gain greater exposure to other deaf people, only gradually acquiring a sense of Deaf culture through shared experience, such as exposure to sign language. That was the case for Luque; the emphasis in his family was on Spanish culture, rather than on Deaf culture.
Thus, although he is used to speaking Spanish and English fluently, his ASL became much better as he interacted with other deaf students at GCC. Also, his understanding of Deaf culture expanded beyond simply improving his ASL.
Feistner says his experience at GCC helped him on his educational path. Luque agrees, reflecting that when he was a freshman, he had no idea of how college worked. For him, a bigger challenge than being deaf was being the first person in his family to pursue a college education. With no one in his family who could teach him how to be a successful college student, he had to look both within himself and to others on campus for guidance.
Initially, Luque wasn’t entirely ready to move into a new chapter of life. But he got used to it, making new friends and joining the GCC business club. As relationships developed, he found satisfaction in tutoring some of his fellow deaf students in math and accounting.
Through the business club, he had an opportunity to attend the Global Mindset Development in Leadership and Management Conference, organized by the University of Riverside and held in Los Angeles. There, he saw successful college graduates present their achievements in international business. He finally understood how these graduates had succeeded in reaching their goals. “They studied hard, interacted with people who are involved in businesses, traveled around the world to view their cultures and learned as they went,” he observed.
Taking 16 credits per semester was challenging for Luque, but he persevered, managing his schedule and establishing priorities. He committed to hanging out with friends only on Saturdays, reserving Sundays and weekdays for study. He hopes this discipline will help him be successful when he transfers to Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business, where he plans to complete a Bachelor of Science for Accountancy (CPA).
Feistner says he learned at GCC that he is much smarter than he ever thought he was. His English teacher, Emily Gwinn, always encouraged him to publish his writings. For now, Feistner intends to pursue a bachelor’s in Secondary Education in General Science and a master’s in Deaf Education.
Both students encourage others to pursue higher education if given the opportunity, and say GCC staff, professors and students were friendly and helpful. “The experience at GCC was awesome,” said Luque. “I’ll definitely miss it – especially the Interpreter Services; I am so grateful to them for their encouragement.”
“Deaf students face many obstacles in completing their post-secondary education, I’m very proud of this group’s remarkable achievement,” said Nichols.
For this group of achievers, the future beckons. All signs point to success.
Learn more about Deaf culture and American Sign Language at the National Association of the Deaf website.