In the United States, only a fraction of the nation's 300 million residents earn a Ph.D. And in the deaf community, an even smaller number of people have overcome a range of challenges – including being deaf – to earn a doctorate.
On the afternoon of February 21, a steady stream of Gallaudet students and other guests filed into the Andrew Foster Auditorium on the Northeast campus to attend the university's "Black Deaf Doctorates: Panel Discussion."
During the Black History Month event, a distinguished group of black deaf individuals who have attained their doctorates, discussed their individual triumphs and struggles in obtaining the advanced degree. One central theme of their remarks and comments was to also encourage more deaf black students to join their ranks.
"I feel proud of myself. I feel at the same time a bit dejected," said Angela McCaskill, Ph.D., regarding the small number of black deaf doctorates. She is currently the deputy to Gallaudet's president, T. Alan Hurwitz, and the associate provost for diversity and inclusion.
"We hosted this program to let you know that if you dream it, you can achieve it ... I want to see more of us in the pipeline," Angela McCaskill said through an interpreter.
There are approximately 13 known deaf black scholars in the country who have earned their doctoral degrees, according to the university's Daily Digest Web page. Nine of the 13 participated in the event. Among those in the audience were Gallaudet students, as well as pupils from the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf. Both of these schools serve as primary and secondary schools that cater to deaf students and they are also located on Gallaudet's campus.
Individually, the group decided to pursue Ph.D.s for various reasons. Some were encouraged by their mentors, while others were encouraged by their bosses, or were fueled by their desire to advance in their careers.
Simon Guteng, Ph.D., who is the director of the university's G. "Bummy" Burstein Leadership Institute, said he was motivated by a conversation he had with his friends when they were in high school, his teaching experience at a school for the deaf in Arizona, and by his church's missionary work.
"We were talking about missionaries in Africa and there were photos of missionaries working with different Africans, both poor and rich. So, I sat back and I wondered, what about those deaf Africans, who is reaching out to them, who is helping them break the barriers they are experiencing in Africa?" said Guteng, who received his doctorate at the University of Arizona.
Within the small, highly accomplished group was even a sister duo: Angela McCaskill and Carolyn McCaskill, Ph.D., who were each awarded their doctoral degrees at Gallaudet in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Angela McCaskill was the first deaf black female to receive her doctorate at the institution.
Carolyn McCaskill is an associate professor in Gallaudet's American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies Department; she also coordinates the department's undergraduate program. Carolyn McCaskill said she was inspired by Glenn Anderson, Ph.D., the first known deaf African American to earn a doctorate degree.
When Anderson, who is currently an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, encouraged her to pursue a doctoral degree, at first she balked, saying she was done with school.
"We can count on one hand how many black people, black deaf people there are with Ph.D.s," Carolyn McCaskill remembers Anderson telling her. "And he said, 'I am lonely. I am very, very lonely.'"
For virtually all of the panelists, the road to pursuing this degree was not without its challenges, and they learned some hard lessons along the way.
"I realize that the key was having a mentor," said Elizabeth Moore, Ph.D., who received her doctorate at Gallaudet last year, and is now both an assistant professor of social work and the director of the department's Master of Social Work degree program.
"There was one terrible obstacle that I really had to get through. It was a statistics class that I was going through. The professor wanted to block me from taking the class," Moore said. " ... I had to file an ADA [American Disabilities Act] complaint."
Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 as a federally chartered institution, under President Abraham Lincoln. The campus is the only university in the world where all of the academic programs are geared towards educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Currently, the university is helping to promote diversity through its Keeping the Promise program, which aims to increase the graduation and retention rates of black and Latino deaf students. So far, Gallaudet has awarded 54 doctorate degrees to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, eight of whom are black and two that were awarded to Latino students, according to information provided by the university.
Two days after the event, the scholars' personal journeys still resonated with first-year graduate student Elena Ruiz, who filled in as one of the student moderators at the last minute at the event. Ruiz also helped Angela McCaskill develop the program for the panel discussion.
"Although I was a last-minute replacement MC, I am honored and humbled to have been a part of this event," said Ruiz in a February 23 e-mail. "As a deaf Latina, it was amazing to have collaborated with the Gallaudet black deaf community during this event."
Ruiz, 26, who is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Deaf Cultural Studies, said she had planned to pursue a doctorate prior to the event. Listening to the guest speakers provided the Sacramento, Calif. native with even more inspiration to achieve her dream.
"However, I listened so intently to the panelists and internalized so much of their wisdom ... never before had I been that inspired by other doctorates in my life," Ruiz said. "It particularly hit home to listen to other deaf women of color's personal stories regarding their journeys in higher education. I now treasure what they shared with all of us, and will definitely apply their words as I progress through my education."
Ultimately, the panelists not only wanted the event to recognize the little-known achievements of deaf African Americans during Black History Month, but they also wish to pass the baton to future scholars.
Ernest Hairston, Ph.D., is a retired employee of the U.S. Department of Education, and said he would like to serve as a mentor to deaf youth. Hairston is also the first deaf black man to receive his doctorate at Gallaudet.
"I look forward to being able to set up that relationship in the future and to expose myself to the black deaf community and mainly to black deaf children," Hairston said.
One of his colleagues agrees.
"I feel like we have to represent and show people that it is possible," said Khadijat Rashid, Ph.D., who received her doctorate at American University, and is a business administration professor at Gallaudet. "Yes, racism is still there. Discrimination is still there. But we have to achieve anyway."