International graduates, supporters savor joyous moment at pre-Commencement reception
Graduation from college is a joyous and memorable occasion for anyone, but for an international student who earns a diploma from Gallaudet University, the event is life-changing event. Learning English and American Sign Language and adapting to a new and often very different culture, in addition to acquiring the needed academic skills to complete their degree requirements makes graduation a particularly magic moment that will be savored for many years.
The radiant faces of 30 graduating international students and their proud families and friends at a reception in the English Language Institute prior to the University's 145th Commencement Exercises could have lit up even the darkest room. "I'm very excited, and a little nervous," said Charlene Malcolm, from Ontario, Canada, who earned her degree in social work. "I can't believe I've finished," said Ana Arce, a World Deaf Leadership (WDL) scholar from the Philippines who graduated with a master's degree in deaf studies with a concentration in cultural studies. "I don't want to leave [Gallaudet], but I have to. I have to take what I've learned here and help make life better for the deaf community at home."
Krishneer Sen, a native of Fiji who earned his degree in information technology, with honors, was one of those happy students who attended the reception, along with his mother, his uncle and aunt, and his sister-in-law. Like Arce, Sen's Gallaudet education was made possible by being selected as a recipient of the Nippon-Gallaudet World Deaf Leadership (WDL) scholarship, which is funded by the Nippon Foundation. He and other WDL scholars at Gallaudet are selected based on their demonstrated ability to become international leaders and make significant contributions to their nation and possibly the world.
"I'm very proud and very emotional today," said his mother, Reena Sen. "I've been waiting for this day since he was born." Always aware of how bright their son was, Sen's parents moved the family often to make sure he benefited from the limited educational opportunities available for deaf people in their country. "My dream has always been for him to be educated and to be on his own. Today, my dream has come true." Also sharing their pride in Sen's accomplishment was Fiji Ambassador to the U.S., His Excellency Mr. Winston Thompson, and his wife, Mrs. Queenie Thompson, who attended Commencement to see Sen receive his diploma.
Sen excelled in his studies over the years. After graduating from a "normal school" as one of two deaf students, accompanied by an interpreter provided by the Ministry of Education, he went to a college in New Zealand where he earned a certificate in information technology... but his thirst for knowledge pushed him to continue his search for knowledge.
While surfing the Internet one day, Sen typed in "deaf universities" and up popped Galllldet-he never knew such a place existed. "There were pictures of deaf people being educated and signing with each other. I was so excited." He also learned that enrolling at Gallaudet was out of his family's range of affordability,, but he found a link for international students on Gallaudet's homepage, where he learned about the WDL scholarship. "I was nervous, I didn't know if I qualified." Three anxious weeks passed until he got the news that he'd won the scholarship. "I was shocked; I wasn't sure what to do." After the reality set in that he was, indeed, going to Gallaudet, Sen went back to Fiji to say goodbye to his family and friends and came to campus in the fall of 2009. After a semester in ELI to improve his English and ASL, and to become acquainted with American culture, he enrolled at the University. Although he took many advanced courses that he found challenging, hard work, combined with the encouragement of Gallaudet's faculty and his academic advisors gave him the tools he needed to succeed.
Only a few hours before he walked across the stage to accept his diploma from Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz, Sen said time has moved quickly since he arrived on campus, but looking back, "I can't believe how much I've learned."
An internship with UNICEF's Suva, Fiji office inspired Sen to apply for a full-time job with the United Nations-affiliated humanitarian relief program's efforts in the East Asia and Pacific regions. If a job doesn't materialize, he won't be discouraged: he is also eager to undertake a project aimed at creating a network of humanitarian agencies that are interested in improving communication access for deaf people through shared strategies and resources.
Sen also plans to encourage every deaf person with a high school degree to explore every option to come to Gallaudet. "Gallaudet gave me a quality education I couldn't have found anywhere else." While he is excited to share his knowledge to improve life for other deaf people, he confessed that he has "mixed feelings" about leaving Gallaudet. "There are such great connections to the campus community here, and it's the Mecca for deaf culture. I'm sad to leave, but I can always come back to visit and share what I have learned." He also plans to encourage every deaf Fijian with a high school degree he meets to continue their education at Gallaudet. "Gallaudet gave me a quality education I couldn't have found anywhere else," he said.
Leaving their daughter alone at a college in a big city like Washington, D.C., so far away from their home in the Philippines worried Ana Arce's parents. It was true that coming to Gallaudet was Arce's dream, but she looked so sad when her parents left her that they felt a tinge of regret.
Fast forward four years, and Arce's parents saw much different emotions on their daughter's face-joy, triumph, excitement. "She is so happy she found Gallaudet," said her father. "Sometimes I think Gallaudet found her."
Gallaudet is the only place in the world that offers a master's degree in deaf studies, a field that Arce yearned to pursue. "I dreamed of coming to Gallaudet, but I had to find a scholarship," she said. Arce applied for the Nippon-Gallaudet World Deaf Leadership, and learned in just a few weeks that she had been accepted-the first WDL recipient from the Philippines. "I was shocked, I can't tell you how excited I was! This was really a big deal for me," she said.
Arce admits to having a case of culture shock when she arrived in the U.S. "At first I was overwhelmed-the food, the weather, the culture-they were all so different," she said. She soon adjusted to the newness, however, and excelled in her studies. The day before Commencement at the University's Hooding and Awards Ceremony, a formal occasion for graduate students signifying their success in completing their graduate program, Arce received two awards. One was the George Veditz Deaf Studies Award, named for a former president of the National Association of the Deaf and the first person to film American Sign Language, the award goes to an outstanding graduate student who has made and will continue to make an impact on the field of deaf studies; the other was the Graduate Research/Writing Award for a graduate student who has completed an outstanding research document in his or her academic program.
Arce has always felt a calling to share her knowledge with deaf people. Growing up, she was a passionate advocate for deaf people, always taking any opportunity she could. She set up a program for deaf youth after Mass at the Catholic church she attended, and later as an undergraduate student at the College of Saint Benilde, she volunteered teaching literacy to deaf people of all ages. As a WDL scholar, she worked on a project to train deaf people how to communicate in a business environment. Building on this theme, her master's thesis addressed helping to change attitudes and perception among Filipino employers so they can see the many benefits deaf workers have to offer.
When she returns home, Arce hopes to find a teaching job at a university, and in time develop a curriculum in deaf studies. She is taking with her several boxes of educational material to share with her deaf peers, who have very limited resources for learning.
Lisa van der Mark from The Netherlands, a member of the Class of 2014 majoring in psychology, had wanted to travel after graduating from a mainstream high school, but the prospect of setting out on her own was daunting. She decided instead to enroll at Gallaudet. Van der Mark soon discovered that coming to the University satisfied her itch to travel, with the added benefit of an education. "Coming to Gallaudet was a good option. There are lots of international people, and I learned so much, it was like touring the world," she said. "I thought at first I would just stay here a year, but I wanted more." She plans to pursue a master's degree in mental health counseling at Gallaudet. Van der Mark said she found Gallaudet to be a welcoming place for international students, with plenty of support for students like herself who needed to adjust to a new culture. For her, the biggest advantage was the communication accessibility Gallaudet is famous for-and the fact that the many friends she made all live nearby, making a close-knit community. Van der Mark's father, who was present that day, along with her mother and brother, to see his daughter graduate, said he is deeply impressed with Gallaudet. Like his daughter, back home "there are deaf young people with brains and potential," but they have limited opportunities for advancement. "Here, it is great," he said.
Le Toudjida Allara, is the son of a United Nations official who was always on the move, which gave him an enlightening exposure to to different cultures and languages. He attended schools in in Geneva, Switzerland, and the African countries of Ivory Coast, Burkino Faso, and Chad, and. As the first citizen of these African countries to complete both bachelor's (international studies) and master's degrees (public administration) at Gallaudet, his graduation with the Class of 2014 was significant; Ambassador Seydou Bouda and Mrs. Bouda from the Embassy of Burkina Faso were present at commencement to witness him receive his diploma. Allara is currently working as a tutor at Gallaudet and helping the University plan events celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. Allara said he began his higher education at the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where he studied micro-electric engineering, then transferred to Gallaudet to pursue a degree in the international field. He said there's a "long list" of benefits for studying at Gallaudet: incomparable communication access, a deaf-friendly environment, small classes, a multicultural campus community, and a strong but nurturing academic environment that helps students develop skills.
Charlene Malcolm, who proudly wore a sash bearing the words "Keeping the Promise" in gold, credited Gallaudet for helping her discover her true identity. In Canada, she had a job in the service industry, and didn't have any deaf friends. Without people like herself to associate with, and no role models or opportunities to improve herself, she felt adrift. Now that she has graduated from Gallaudet, "I have become a proud deaf woman, and I am accepted for who I am," she said. On the recommendation of friends she made soon after arriving at campus, Malcom entered the Keeping the Promise program, which empowers multicultural students of all backgrounds and abilities to achieve academic, career, and personal success. It was one of the best decisions of her life. "It really helped me to become a leader," she said. "It encourages you to meet people, and any issue, or problem, or challenge you have, to address it and work to improve." Malcolm said she plans to return home and pursue her master's degree.
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