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The Evolution of RIT’s bicultural campus

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Mark Benjamin

RIT/NTID students chat near the Dining Commons, seated in a circle so everyone can be easily seen.

When RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf opened its doors to the first class of 70 students in 1968, it was viewed as “The Grand Experiment” to see whether deaf and hard-of-hearing students could flourish on a college campus predominately filled with hearing students.

More than 40 years later, more than 1,300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students are enrolled at NTID, as well as nearly 200 hearing students in NTID’s interpreting and master’s of education programs. About half of the deaf students take courses in other RIT colleges. Twenty-five percent of all classes in the other seven RIT colleges have either an interpreter, captionist or note-taker to accommodate a deaf or hard-of-hearing student.

Later this year, the RIT American Sign Language and Deaf Studies Community Center is expected to open in the Student Union, with an eventual home in the Wallace Center. It is intended to celebrate the multidimensional aspect of deafness in a visible location and enable American Sign Language and Deaf Studies to become more accessible to the entire RIT community.

The center’s planning committee chair is Donna Gustina, who recently retired as chairperson of NTID’s American Sign Language and Interpreting Education (ASLIE) program. Gustina, who became deaf as a toddler, first visited NTID during its infancy in the 1960s. She’s seen the reaction to deaf students on campus from their hearing peers change over the years from a novelty to widespread acceptance.

“Over the years, RIT and NTID has had to go through the stages of the newness wearing off, miscommunications, misunderstandings and stereotyping that happens whenever a new minority group enters a well-established majority culture,” Gustina says. “Cultural adaptations take many years to happen. There will always be groups of people who do not wish to take the time to learn, to work, study and socialize with people who are different from them—either hearing or deaf. However, my experience in working at RIT, these groups are few and far between 40 years later.”

Sign classes have always been offered for RIT students after NTID was on campus. There were formal classes taught by faculty and informal classes taught by peers. More than a dozen credit classes of ASL are offered each quarter, and classes are always full, meaning 900 hearing RIT students take a sign class each year. Summer sign classes will be added next year. In addition, sign classes are also offered for faculty and staff.

“Nowhere in the world will you find the type of support services available to make this mainstream campus a reality,” Gustina says. “One will see interpreters at sporting events, theater productions, for guest speakers, religious services, counseling services, at student co-op experiences, labs and classes. Where will you find a campus that readily provides captioning at all their events and in their course materials? What campus provides videophones and TTY stations on campus? Do other college campuses have dorms and classrooms equipped with light systems for visual smoke alarms and doorbells? Is security staff trained to communicate and interact with people who are deaf? What other campus can boast Deaf students as student leaders on a mainstream campus? Can another college president or provost sign part of their speeches like Drs. Destler and Haefner? We are unique!”

Some would like that integration expanded, with more ways for deaf and hearing people to interact. There are “ASL at Lunch” programs and temporary “No Voice Zones” where only sign language is used.

“The first and most challenging step in becoming involved in each other’s lives is communication,” Gustina says. “Once that is resolved to their satisfaction, they are well on their way to being involved in both cultures equally. RIT has an amazing wealth of opportunities for students to be involved in their campus and Rochester communities.”

RIT Student Government President Greg Pollock recalls coming to RIT and “seeing flying hands everywhere.” Even though he’s deaf, he says it was a culture shock seeing so many deaf students in one place, with varying communication preferences.

“I think this center is an excellent medium in which ASL awareness can really begin to grow and expand,” Pollock says. “RIT has been a fantastic catalyst in fueling that. I think the ASL center will act as a seed that is planted into the heart of RIT.”

Gustina agrees. 

“My dream for the center is that our mission statement becomes a reality: to share information, resources, talents and knowledge regarding American Sign Language and deaf culture, support diversity on the campus by providing a comfortable and creative environment for collegial and social interaction among deaf and hearing people, support preservation of American Sign Language, be a resource for community, national and international outreach activities that enrich and celebrate achievements of the deaf community and support advocacy and education among deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing colleagues.”

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed NTID into law in 1965 because there were few options at the time for deaf students to receive a technical college education.

“Less than one percent of all college age deaf individuals were enrolled in postsecondary education,” says NTID’s founding director, D. Robert Frisina. “Of those employed, most held unskilled or semi-skilled positions, with a virtual absence of technical and managerial positions.”

Eight communities bid for NTID, but Rochester and RIT were selected due in part to RIT’s reputation of providing the most up-to-date technical educations possible, and for its longstanding co-op programs with local companies such as Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox and Bausch & Lomb.

Rochester was also home to Rochester School for the Deaf, which was founded in 1876. The city traditionally offered plenty of printing jobs, often sought by deaf workers because the notion (not necessarily a correct one) that the noise of the printers didn’t bother them. With the addition of NTID, Rochester’s deaf community became larger and nationally known. Rochester was one of the first cities to have public TTY (teletypewriter) pay phones, captioning for local news programs and daily captioned movies at theaters.

“NTID is an integral part of RIT,” says RIT President Bill Destler. “NTID helps shape RIT’s identity. Its students, faculty and staff add to RIT’s unfair advantage over other colleges in terms of accessibility, creativity and diversity. ” 

  • Ever since RIT’s NTID opened its doors to students in 1968, it wasn’t unusual to see hearing and deaf students integrated on campus. Today, more than 1,300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students attend classes, live and socialize with their hearing peers on campus.

  • NTID-supported students have come from all 50 states and beyond. Many come from schools for the deaf, but most students now come from mainstreamed programs where they may be the only deaf student in their school. Many know sign language, others don’t when they first come to campus. Some hear well enough with hearing aids to use a traditional telephone; others may not use hearing aids. More than 280 students have cochlear implants.

  • RIT has received more than $1.5 billion from Congress for NTID since its inception in 1965. Since then, nearly 7,000 students have graduated from NTID, including hearing students who have received degrees in sign language interpretation. The degrees include associate, bachelor and master degrees. Our research shows deaf students earn more money (and pay more in taxes and have less dependency on public assistance) the more they are educated.

  • Historically, more than 90 percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing graduates who have chosen to enter the labor market have obtained jobs in business, industry, government, education and other fields within a year of graduation. NTID employs 594 faculty and staff, including more than 120 sign language interpreters. NTID would rank as the 44th largest private sector employer 
in the Rochester area.

  • Last year, RIT/NTID provided 80,474 hours of interpreting, 17,330 hours of classroom captioning and 63,291 hours of notetaking.

Meet RIT’s new Student Government President

Born deaf, Greg Pollock attended Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf near his home in Pittsburgh before moving into a mainstream school as a young child. He was one of the few deaf people in his school prior to coming to RIT/NTID.

A professional technical communications major in his fourth year, Pollock says he’s still unsure about what he’ll do after graduating, but says anything is possible, including attending graduate school.

“I want students to know I’m here for them,” Pollock says. “They are as much a part of Student Government as the cabinet is. Come into the office with a suggestion or a pet peeve and we’ll give you a bag of fresh, hot popcorn on the spot.”

He said being deaf and communicating with his fellow officers, students and RIT faculty, staff and administrators has not been a problem. “For the most part, everyone has been very responsive to my needs,” he says. “And I hope our students are inspired. We are all about inspiration. We want to make sure that RIT is a fantastic place for students to be and for RIT to be more attentive to what students want. Remember, we are the gateway to the next generation.” 


Mark Benjamin

RIT/NTID students chat near the Dining Commons, seated in a circle so everyone can be easily seen.


A. Sue Weisler

Greg Pollock addresses the crowd during New Student Convocation this past September.


Mark Benjamin

NTID Performing Arts offer several shows a year, such as this performance of Alice in Wonderland from 2009. Actors use sign language as their lines are voiced by other actors, so everyone in the audience may follow the plots.


Nancy Rourke

“Sign Internationally,” an oil-on- canvas work, was created by NTID alumnus Nancy (Oyos) Rourke ’82, ’86 (computer graphics and painting).


A. Sue Weisler

Donna Gustina, chair of the planning committee for the RIT American Sign Language and Deaf Studies Community Center, became deaf as a toddler and first visited NTID 40 years ago. She’s seen reaction to deaf students on campus change from a novelty to acceptance, and she is providing vision for the new center dedicated to increasing the awareness of deafness on campus.