Areas of Study

“Where Are You, Black Deaf Students?”

A disproportionate high school drop-out rate. A college attendance rate of less than 30 percent. A large likelihood of leaving college even if they do begin. Dr. Laurene Simms, professor of education, introduced these findings at the March 25 panel “Where Are You, Black Deaf Students?” This situation is what Dr. Simms calls the “bottleneck” for this population. At Gallaudet, the Keeping the Promise program has boosted graduation rates to 96 percent for its black male participants, but many black deaf students still leave the school before they receive their degrees.

“Where do they go?” Simms asked. “That is what this panel is addressing.”
Simms then introduced each of the panelists: Darian Burwell, director of Student Success in the First Year Experience, and undergraduates April Jackson of Missouri, Kevin Williams from Louisiana, and Anthony Harrison, who grew up in Texas and New Jersey.

Simms asked each panelist a series of questions, including their perceptions of why black deaf students are so hard to keep on campus, and what they recommend for those who want to one day walk across the Commencement stage. In between Simms’ questions, she invited audience members to come forward to fire away.

As the discussion continued, panelists and audience participants made connections. Jackson lamented the lack of mentors and similar resources on campus, but Jenelle Thomas, a student assistant in the Office of Diversity and Equity for Students (ODES), knew otherwise. “If you’re looking for a mentor, we have that service through offices like ODES. If you’re looking for guidance for your career and future, we have the Career Center,” said Thomas. The real question, she said, is “Why aren’t the students reaching out for them?”

At another point, an audience member addressed the different attitudes toward African students and African American students. Simms realized an oversight then—all of the panelists were born and raised in the U.S. She hopes to include an international student next time such a panel opportunity arises.

The event was also punctuated by words of advice, especially when it came to forging connections. “Gallaudet is too small for you to not know people,” said Burwell, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Gallaudet. “Get to know people on a first-name basis.” And when it comes to help from mentors or other resources, she said “don’t be afraid to ask.”

“Networking,” Jackson said simply. “Keep it up!”

The panel was part of a sharpened focus on supporting students through graduation. On April 6, the Davila Diversity Lecture Series will welcome Dr. Angela Batista with the presentation “Latino College Students: Barriers and Challenges to Succeeding in College at Predominantly White Institutions.”

Later in April, Gallaudet will host a retention forum with President Hurwitz, Provost Weiner, Associate Provost Andersen, and selected faculty and staff. The presenters will share information on what is driving student retention, the impact on total enrollment, and graduation rates.

While the panel was part of this overall effort to see more students to the finish line, Simms reminded the audience that no one has all the answers. “We are not magicians here,” she said as the panel came to a close. All any individual can do is call it how they see it.

Burwell also had a message toward the end of the presentation: “I want all of you who have seen what we have to say to not keep it in the Gallaudet community,” she said. “Take it all around the world.”
–Rhea Yablon Kennedy

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