Interview with Gallaudet President Cordano at Austin Deaf Club

June 5, 2017

 

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Transcript] 

 

(Clips of Gallaudet University Alumni Association (GUAA) gathering at Austin Deaf Club). 

 

Question #1: You are at the GUAA gathering here in Austin, where there are a lot of Gallaudet alumni. IN what ways do you track their successes or frustration as they go out into the world? 

 

Cordano: I’m thrilled to be here in Austin, it is my first time here, it is a beautiful Deaf club. And I see a lot of Gallaudet alumni here, and if they aren’t, they “wish” they were, or they show a lot of respect for Gallaudet. So we are creating communities wherever we go. I love to come here and feel their “pulse.” 

 

One way we keep track of alumni is by visiting GUAA chapters. Whenever I travel, I always visit GUAA chapters to listen to their stories. Our leadership in the U.S. often comes from Gallaudet graduates. Your successes are our successes, and your frustrations teach us. We learn and aim to prepare our students before they graduate and go out into the world. 

 

We are seeing opportunities in the business world — risk management and insurance — so we’ve established a new major/program to meet the many skills needed. Another instance is public health, deaf communities often face issues with health equality in our services and support systems. So there’s a new public health program that will start this fall. 

 

The most important thing is to keep committed to the visual langauge, the visual experiences of our people. And we are seeing people like you, we are learning how we improve access to media, communication, news, and information in sign language, the visual experience. So when we prepare people like you to go out into the world, we watch and learn from you, we have this exchange of information. 

 

That’s what the Gallaudet experience has been so far and I’m proud of that. 

 

Question #2: There is a national effort to pass LEAD-K legislation and Gallaudet’s research is often cited as evidence. Is Gallaudet tracking those efforts and in what ways has the university become involved? 

 

Cordano: If you remember last year, in the spring of 2016, shortly after I became president — I released a position paper on, “Myths of Language Acquisition” — it explained how babies acquired langauge in their brains. There are many myths out there, what we have believed for a thousand of years to be true. One of them is that the area of the brain behind the ears, where langauge is received — we’ve thought it could only be “received” via sound. But research has shown that although the area is behind the ears, it is actually a “langauge center.” 

 

Language enters the brain not only through the ears, but through the eyes also. There’s current research that shows langauge can be acquired through the body — which is the deafblind experience — by tactile language. We’ve found that the brain looks for patterns in langauge, it doesn’t have to do with specifically sound, sight, or tactile, it is patterns that are acquired by the brain. 

 

This is important because there are myths out there. How do we support LEAD-K? We provide Gallaudet research to all, and they use it, and we have that exchange of support. They are promoting ASL to be recognized as a language and to assess our children’s langauge: ASL and English. So we have supported the notion of a visual language. 

 

Now I want to take a few steps backwards, because this is not just about LEAD-K. We as a community must hold the big picture as well. This is the 200th year of Deaf education in America. Why is this important? 200 years ago, Thomas Gallaudet brought to America the first formal teaching system from France. L’eppe, at the time, saw that when you used sign language with deaf children, they would acquire it. He then used signs to build a bridge between sign language and French spoken language. We now have 200 years of experience with teaching and learning through ASL and English. 200 years later, we must go back to understand the same principle, it was known 200 years ago and now science has proven it to be true. 

 

So Gallaudet is seeking on how we can prove the impact of early-langauge acquisition with children from ages 0-5. But we must remember that the children aren’t “alone” — as they are almost always in a household, in a family unit. Language develops through the family. There is powerful research — one might think that in families that learn sign language for a deaf child, that with deaf parents would be “automatically” better than families that are learning sign langauge. But this is not true, as our research has shown that with families with hearing parents, the most critical thing is that they connect with the child. Even as the parents are “learning” sign language, when they communicate it with the child, the child’s brain develops rapidly, in the same way deaf children learn from deaf parents. It’s the same. So there are parents who might think because they can’t sign well, that their child can’t learn langauge. The opposite is true. It requires two things, to connect to them, and to expose them to signs, for them to see signs. In the same thread, if deaf parents neglect to communicate with their children, the kids will not have good brain development. The child must connect and see. Even gestures with pointing at things, helping kids with making connections, will give them brain development. 

 

So we now must distribute this research to families, healthcare, and education systems, to build support for the whole family and the child, not just the child. This will support parents as they raise our children to be future leaders, changemakers, and innovators. 

 

Question #3: The Trump administration’s proposed budget has caused many to be concerned about potential cuts to education funding. Is there any concern with Gallaudet’s ability to continue to get federal funding? Can you also share your thoughts about state and local K-12 programs? 

 

Cordano: First of all, my experience in Washington, D.C. now is when I meet Republicans or Democrats, people in the federal government, when they understand what we are doing and our contributions to the world, they say, “wow!” I see a lot of support for Gallaudet, but we must pay attention to their decision-making processes by keeping in touch with our legislators, our Senators, to let them know of the impact Gallaudet is making on the world and on what we need as a community. They are willing to listen.

 

The federal government does not support state-level schools, as it is the responsibility of the state legislatures. This means communities should learn how we at Gallaudet works with Congress, how we educate them and provide them research materials. You can use the materials to educate your state legislators. The Deaf community must be involved. That’s where we find success, when we become engaged citizens in our community. Go to legislators, go to Congress, call your Senators and representatives to tell them of the benefits of a Gallaudet education and tell them to support Gallaudet to keep on making a difference in the world. Make a difference. 

 

One thing that we as a community must watch with the federal legislature now — there is a program called “Pell Grant.” This is for families that are from low-income families. Right now, 61% of our students qualify for pell grants. That is a high percentage, so it means many of our students come from lower-income families. So if this program is cut, it means students’ access to higher education programs will decrease. So we are keeping attention on that and trying to educate them on how important it is to keep access for our deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, those with cochlear implants or hearing aids, it doesn’t matter, whoever wants to go to Gallaudet. So we are encouraging alumni who have benefited from pell grants to contact your representative, your legislator, to tell them how a pell grant has helped to benefit you. They need to see and understand. Stories are powerful. We must tell our stories as a community on what gives us success — pell grants are one of them, VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) is another. I’m going to visit your local VR office to support them, educate them, to learn what they are seeing and how Gallaudet can support them. It is important that we work together. 

 

Question #4: What are the highlights of your presidency, especially during the 2016-2017 year and the recent graduation ceremony? 

 

Cordano: Thank you for that question. I know you saw my inauguration and my interview when I got on campus for the job. I often tell people that it is not my presidency, it is our presidency. What does Gallaudet as a community celebrate? We recently had 409 graduates for the spring semester. Over 190 of them are undergraduates. We had around 100-112 graduate students. The most significant number is our 12 Ph.D. students. That is a huge accomplishment for us as we are sending out Ph.D.s into their fields to continue to advance. 

 

There is a really great achievement, in our interpreting program, this is the first year that we had an African-American in each of the BA, MA, and Ph.D. classes. This is the first time in Gallaudet’s history where we have more diversity in this field. So we had all three “levels” accomplished and this is thrilling. We had the honor of having Dr. Glenn Anderson come back to Gallaudet to be one of the two honorary degree recipients. He gave a beautiful speech and I think the community was inspired. He is a leader, I think he is the first black deaf person to get a Ph.D. He has been involved in the experiences of the other students who got their degrees. It was nice to connect with the community, I think the African-American community as a whole are very thrilled to see their achievements. 

 

So Gallaudet is moving forward, step by step. And we celebrated Jim Maguire, who has invested a lot so Deaf people can have opportunities in the business world, in insurance and risk management. He has inspired us with his philosophy of success. People have taken his ideas to heart. It was a wonderful commencement. 

 

We are doing a lot of work here at Gallaudet, we as a community are facing the same issues as the world. My positive takeaway of this is that we as a community, the students, staff and faculty, are coming together to be committed to work on different issues, to confront them and accept our roles and responsibilities, on how we can improve ourselves. This is important. I’m thrilled with the hard work I see in our community. 

 

(Clips of President Cordano at the GUAA gathering) 

 

Bienvenu: Hi, we are here at the GUAA gathering. I’m thrilled that GUAA alumni has recognized this Deaf club and asked us if they could use this venue. I said, “of course!” I feel so good to see all the people here. The club board and members are thrilled. Other clubs should do the same thing — if they hear of any Gallaudet or deaf school gathering. Here, the AAD (Austin Association of the Deaf) and the Texas School for the Deaf are close partners. Now Gallaudet has recognized us. All of us should work with other organizations. It’s fun here, people are eating and chatting, it feels like a Gallaudet reunion! 

 

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