GREENSBORO, N.C. -- In July 2014, Dr. Jane Fernandes came to Greensboro to become who many believe is the first deaf woman to lead a college or university in the United States. Although the learning curve has been steep, she’s transitioning nicely into her position of president of Guilford College.
Wherever she goes on campus, an American Sign Language interpreter – who is on the college staff -- is close by. Fernandes can read lips and speaks well herself, but uses the interpreter for accuracy.
Although she can’t hear herself speak, her mother (who is also deaf) helped teach her to communicate using her voice.
“My mother taught her children the way she learned,” Fernandes says. “So that involved, almost from the very beginning, an emphasis on vision -- on looking at people’s mouths, on converting your mouth to sound. It was an ongoing process, [a] tremendous amount of work.”
Speaking of work, she’s already set some goals.
“We are here to provide education and we’re focused first on teaching and learning, and that’s what our primary mission will always be,” she says.
Even so, she’d like to grow Guilford’s enrollment of around 2,300 students by about 100 over the next five to seven years. And since 99 percent of Guilford’s students receive what she calls “significant financial aid,” she’s placing a big emphasis on reining in tuition while maintaining the quality of education the college provides.
“We need to work on the balance between those two things. But definitely we need to help students get an education that they need and deserve to minimize the students leaving school in debt.”
Establishing a downtown Greensboro campus or presence is also on her radar as well as consistently interacting or “listening” (her word) to the students.
“To me, it’s important to be in touch with the students to help us remember why we are here. We’re here for them.”
Fernandes is also one of the nation’s leading proponents of learning American Sign Language and feels if it were offered in primary and secondary schools and even in higher education, it could transform our society.
If you’re interested in learning sign language, she recommends this link: http://www.ncdhhs.gov/dsdhh/business/SignLanguage.pdf.