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NTID experiment proved truly grand

College celebrates a unique 35-year journey

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the National Technical Institute for the Deaf Act at a White House ceremony on June 8, 1965.

Let’s start at the beginning and give credit where it’s due: Hettie Shumway. This remarkable woman, wife of RIT benefactor F. Ritter Shumway, was the most vocal, charming and persistent supporter of having the National Technical Institute for the Deaf brought to RIT in the 1960s. When Shumway heard from a government official that plans were underway to select a host institution for NTID, she marched into RIT President Mark Ellingson’s office and boldly declared, “I just heard about a wonderful thing I think we should have at RIT. We are a technical institute. We ought to be in this field.”

Her idea was met with modest enthusiasm and a promise to investigate further, but that wasn’t good enough for Shumway: She recruited and then educated civic leaders, educators, and Board of Trustees members about the many benefits this fledgling college could bring to RIT. If not for Hettie Shumway, NTID might not be here at all.

Hettie Shumway

And RIT would be a very different place. Provost Stanley McKenzie, whose career at RIT began in 1967, observes, “Three things stand out in my mind as most significant about NTID’s presence at RIT. First, the complete assimilation of deaf and hard-of-hearing people into the life of the institute at every level. For instance, no one here blinks an eye at having an interpreter standing next to us signing, while visitors always are amazed at this phenomenon. Second is the widespread desire of hearing faculty, staff, and students to learn American Sign Language, not only to communicate more easily with deaf members of our community, but also to participate in such an expressive mode of communication.

“Finally, and most important, are the significant numbers of deaf students pursuing degrees, working side-by-side with their hearing counterparts on group projects and teams, finding success in their own endeavors and contributing so much to the educational experience here.”

The need for such a college can be traced to post-World War II America. The contributions of thousands of technically savvy deaf workers filling in for those called to service ignited a drive to establish some sort of formal technical educational opportunity for the nation’s deaf people.

Gathering support in pockets around the country, the effort culminated with the 1965 signing of Public Law 89-36, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf Act, by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson then appointed an advisory group to prepare guidelines and review proposals from colleges around the country who wanted to “host” NTID. RIT was selected in 1966 over other contenders including the universities of Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Illinois. Robert Frisina, then a professor of audiology at Gallaudet College (now University) in Washington, D.C., became founding director.

“RIT was beginning its transition from a local technical institute to a multi-college technological university,” recalls Frisina. “The acquisition of this federal enterprise gave immediate national attention to RIT that assisted significantly in its drive toward university status.”

Frisina, who had just one year to hire faculty members, find classroom space, and design curricular offerings, surrounded himself with a core group of planners who shared his belief that educating deaf students at RIT was both a viable and enviable proposition. He recruited faculty members from colleges, business and industry, and secondary schools for the deaf from as close as Pittsburgh and as far away as California. Those willing to make this somewhat risky career move all believed that they were part of something bigger than themselves, and they brought with them extraordinary talents, passion, and creativity.

Ground was broken on June 4, 1971, for construction of the NTID complex. Four students participated, from left: Linda Kessler ’73, Thomas Tyberg ’71, Barbara Kowalczik ’73 and Charles Jones ’73.

“I fondly recall the camaraderie, the excitement, the challenge and quest of adventure that characterized the pioneering spirit of the faculty,” says NTID professor emeritus Robert Panara, who was enticed by Frisina to NTID from Gallaudet.

The charter class of 70 students who came in 1968 was blissfully unaware of the whirlwind of activities that had preceded their arrival: months of intensive sessions with residence hall advisors, administrators and student leaders; visits to Gallaudet, the nation’s only college for deaf students at the time; meetings with community representatives from business, industry, and education – all in preparation for what became known as “The Grand Experiment.”

“I was incredibly proud to be a member of NTID’s first entering class,” says William Ingraham, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting in 1971. “I had transferred from Alfred State College to RIT and found my studies so much easier because of the interpreters and notetakers available. I also had the good fortune of having a wonderful RIT professor (William Gasser, who taught tax accounting) who took great interest in me and was largely responsible for helping me get a position with the Internal Revenue Service, where I’ve worked for the past 34 years.”

To Frisina and his fellow planners’ credit, those programs first offered by NTID in 1968 remained the cornerstone of NTID’s curriculum for the next several decades, with modifications made only to reflect current job market demands. Beyond those program choices, however, newly appointed dean William Castle and Frisina channeled time and energy into creating what they believed would be more natural opportunities for deaf and hearing students to interact in creative settings outside of classes – sports, performing arts, and social clubs.

Recalls 1998 social work graduate Liz Stone, “RIT gave me opportunities to grow in so many different dimensions. I was extremely active in a variety of groups, which taught me the art of time management as well as the importance of community rapport. Those programs I chose to participate in outside of class were the most appealing and were what sparked my interest in making social change for deaf people.”

Eight years after opening, its student population growing by leaps and bounds, NTID dedicated a $27.5 million facility comprising the Lyndon Baines Johnson academic building, the Hettie Shumway dining commons and the Ellingson-Peterson-Bell residence hall complex. Those facilities would be put to the test in just six years, as the rubella epidemic of the 1960s caused a tremendous surge in the numbers of deaf youngsters ready for college in the early 1980s.

Preparing for and accommodating that wave of students occupied most of NTID’s strategic plans for the next several years. The Hugh L. Carey academic building – named for the former congressman and New York governor who sponsored the original legislation that created NTID – was added in 1984, the same year a record number of students – 1,319 – enrolled at NTID.

NTID provides students with a top-notch educational environment and rich cultural experiences including an acclaimed performing arts program.

At the end of this decade of growth, during which NTID built a new telecommunications lab, a staff resource center, and established a scholarship fund in Panara’s name, an event occurred in Washington, D.C., that changed the face of deaf culture forever.

The furor erupting over the naming of a hearing candidate as president of Gallaudet College in 1988 attracted worldwide media attention and marked a turning point not only for Gallaudet, but for NTID and the world’s deaf community as well. The event brought together NTID and Gallaudet students in a show of unity and support and jumpstarted an empowerment movement that still is evolving today.

Kevin Ryan ’89 was one of three student leaders on several busloads of NTID students who made the historic trip to Washington to support the Gallaudet students.

“What a great experience it was for me,” Ryan recalls. “We planned the trip, took about 150 people, and helped the Gallaudet students with their list of demands. We had so many deaf people working together – and no problems. After it was all over (I. King Jordan, a deaf man, was named president), we were completely worn out.”

Back at NTID, students showed new forthrightness in asking to participate more fully in decision-making on governing boards on campus. A deaf attorney, Bonnie Tucker, was appointed to the RIT Board of Trustees. (Other deaf trustees, most recently Al Pimentel and Jane Pulver, have followed.)

New communication guidelines at NTID mandated that faculty and staff members further develop their sign language skills as a requirement for tenure. The college’s Deaf Professionals Group emerged to represent the increasing numbers of deaf faculty members and administrators, many of them RIT graduates.

As NTID turned the corner into the final decade of the 20th century, the empowerment movement gained strength with the 1996 appointment of Robert Davila as RIT’s first deaf vice president for NTID. This articulate, charismatic spokesperson brought extensive educational and government experience as well as a keen desire to open NTID’s doors beyond Rochester, beyond New York, and beyond the United States.

Robert Davila became RIT’s first deaf vice president for NTID in 1996.

“When I became CEO,” Davila says, “I reiterated my belief that NTID’s service responsibilities should be global rather than domestic by encouraging a wide range of international activities and projects.”

His timing was perfect. As nationally recognized experts on topics ranging from how to teach deaf students science and math to how to train professional interpreters (NTID already had established the country’s first interpreter training program), NTID faculty and staff members increasingly found themselves in demand at destinations worldwide.

The most potentially far reaching of these endeavors began in 2001, when former NTID dean James J. DeCaro undertook a new initiative designed to share NTID’s cumulative knowledge with leaders of deaf education in other nations.

The Postsecondary Education Network-International (PEN-International), a $6 million program funded primarily by The Nippon Foundation of Japan, was created to help universities around the world apply state-of-the art instructional technologies and improve and update their technical curricula (see accompanying story).

“PEN-International,” says RIT President Albert Simone, “will allow deaf and hard-of-hearing students in other countries to have the same opportunities that American students have here. While NTID is a unique national model, its acclaim and recognition are truly worldwide.”

Indeed, NTID’s decades-old reputation for academic excellence is exactly why companies both here and abroad turn to NTID for qualified graduates who need little on-the-job training. The college’s 94 percent employment rate over the last five years includes more than 50 percent of graduates working in professional and technical specialties.

The majority of those not in the employment sector have chosen, like recent graduate Katherine Hoheusle, to continue their education. Hoheusle, who received a bachelor’s degree in imaging science in 2000, took a job with IBM in Boulder, Col., after graduation and just began her master’s degree program in aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado.

“The most important thing I learned at RIT is that in life, the only boundaries that exist are the ones you make on yourself. I picked a tough major, but made it through with help and encouragement from my fellow students in the program as well as some outstanding faculty members who helped me grow. I loved the balance of hearing and deaf students. NTID is where I found my identity as a deaf person.”

The challenge of the next decade, according to Davila, will be “to gather more information about the work experiences of alumni like Katie. How are they faring five, 10, and 15 years after graduation? What issues must they deal with in order to gain upward mobility and job security? What are their continuing education needs? So many questions, but the answers are paramount if we are to create an effective feedback ‘loop’ to allow us to design program changes to remain current.”

This summer, NTID prepares to welcome back a large number of its more than 4,500 graduates when the college hosts its 35th alumni reunion in July. One wonders whether those pioneering faculty, staff, and students from NTID’s first class could ever have envisioned the breadth and reach of what once seemed an impossible dream.

Concludes Davila, who will retire June 30 this year, “Beyond question, the past has been a glowing prologue, but the future will be even more promising.”

Kathleen Sullivan Smith

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