Buoyed by a society increasingly supportive of deaf people, Monica Alfaro on Saturday becomes Southern Oregon University's first deaf graduate — and will head into the job market this summer as she begins her career in crime scene investigation and juvenile justice work.
Alfaro, a Latina and Klamath Falls native, lost her hearing from a disease at age 2. She said she was inspired to pursue the field of law enforcement after a childhood vehicle accident in which a policeman "calmed us, when we were freaking out and gave me a pink cup — it was so nice."
Ann Curry, the former Rogue Valley newscaster who is now on NBC's "Today" show, will give the keynote speech today at Southern Oregon University's 84th annual commencement Saturday at Raider Stadium.
The ceremony, during which SOU will hand diplomas to 1,120 graduates, starts at 3 p.m. in Raider Stadium. It will air on RVTV, Ch. 15 and be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. on Ch. 9.
SOU will award 874 bachelor's and 343 master's degrees. The graduating classes are 61 percent female and 39 percent male, with 78 percent of them are Oregon residents.
Curry, a graduate of Ashland High School, earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1978. She was the first female journalist at KTVL-TV in Medford and went on to be an anchor on the NBC "Today" and "Dateline" shows. Her reporting has taken her across the globe.
Curry's father, Robert, is an SOU graduate and husband of a Japanese national he met during service in Japan after World War II.
The student speaker will be Anita Hagy Ferguson. Representing the Oregon University System will be trustee Brian Fox, who is getting his economics degree, magna cum laude Saturday.
Ferguson, a single parent with a 5-year-old daughter, has been doing independent research on links between climate change, cultural identity and global conflict. She now enters doctoral study at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change.
At graduation, SOU will promote environmental sustainability by requesting that guests bring their own water containers, which can be refilled on site, instead of retail plastic bottles. A large audience is expected, so gates will be open at 1 p.m., with a shuttle available from the large Mountain Avenue parking lot above the boulevard.
Alfaro interned at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Forensics Laboratory and wants to use her new criminal justice degree "to support victims and offenders in the juvenile justice system and increase mediation to help them face each other, instead of holding grudges and anger against each other."
"Until I came along," she said, SOU had never had a deaf student or a program for the deaf — and they moved quickly, using funds under the Americans With Disabilities Act to establish one and provide interpreters. The program now has four students — and the campus American Sign Language club has 80 members, with ASL being offered this fall for foreign language credit.
The program provides four interpreters who accompany deaf students to many classes and to events where they will interact with hearing people, says Ila Sachs, program coordinator for SOU's Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Services.
In the field, Sachs tells people to talk directly to the deaf person, who then signs answers to Sachs, who, in turn, speaks the answers to the hearing person. In her career, Alfaro will use an interpreter provided and funded by the ADA.
Alfaro however, is able to communicate on her own by texting on her cell phone and showing it to people, as well as by sign language, which coworkers and fellow students have been eager to learn, she said.
"I text to order food and I teach sign language when I'm with people. They pick it up really quickly when they're with me," she said.
In class, a person acting much like a court reporter types lectures, which appear on the computer screen as captions, a process Alfaro says has "really helped me with vocabulary development and the ways people use English."
Far from hindering her, deafness has honed Alfaro's ability to focus during a sometimes chaotic crime scene investigation, heightening her other senses and helping her pick up details others miss, says her forensics teacher, Lee Ayers.
"She's engaged, involved and highly visible," says Ayers. "She's never created a handicap for herself; it's never been an obstacle for her. She makes things happen for herself and never asks for anything different than anyone else. She may not be able to be a police officer, because of deafness, but she brings a very developed skill set. She's going to be a gem."
After graduation this Saturday, Alfaro plans a trip to Leon in the state of Guanajuato, home of her extended family, and will volunteer there, teaching deaf children ASL, which has many differences from Mexican Sign Language.
Alfaro completed her bachelor's degree in four years and was active in the Latino Student Union, Criminology Club, ASL Club and International Students Association, and was a campus ambassador, leading tours at Raider Registration.
The "sign language culture" doesn't consider it a handicap, she notes, adding, "We have our own stories, poetry, social events."
She lived in dorms the first year, which helped her build a network of friends before moving out on her own, she says.
"Other students always included me, never made me feel left out — and the Latino Student Union was so welcoming," she said. "I love SOU. It's a beautiful campus and is diverse, accepting and open-minded. The professors have been very supportive and make sure you pass classes and they guide you to jobs in the future."
Alfaro unabashedly says her goal in life is not so much to make good money — although her chosen profession pays well — but "to help people and save the world."
Sachs adds, "She's a remarkable young woman. She's already opened the doors for many future deaf and hard-of-hearing people ... and I know she'll go out there and save the world."