Why mutual support matters: surviving as Deaf/HoH graduate students at a predominantly hearing institution

A white woman with a big smiling face pressed to her guide dog's face, they are both sitting and her arm is wrapped around him. She has straight long brown hair and is wearing a white and tan dress, and he is a black lab wearing a leather harness that says leaderdog.org.
Breanne Kisselstein
A white woman with blonde hair resting on her shoulders. She is wearing a black suit jacket, and smiling at the camera. She has blue eyes and freckles and a wide smile.
Anne Logan

The Mind Hears was excited to learn that Anne and Breanne are two deaf graduate students in the same School of Integrative Plant Sciences. So many of us navigate graduate school as the only deaf student in the university, much less the graduate program. So we caught up with Anne and Breanne to explore how having a compatriot in graduate school has impacted their experiences. We asked them these questions:

Tell us a bit about your background.

Tell us about your discovery that you were not the only deaf student when you started your graduate program.

Tell us of other ways that having deaf fellow students on campus have impacted you.

What other challenges have you found remain for you in grad school, despite having the support of deaf colleagues?


Tell us a bit about your background.

Breanne: I am a PhD candidate in Plant Pathology at Cornell University, and am researching the population genetics of a fungus that causes powdery mildew of grapevine. I have loved science since I was a little girl, and was inspired to pursue sciences due to all of the different rare diseases that have occurred in my family. I’ve always been fascinated by infectious diseases and molecular biology, and the idea of translating that to plant diseases and protecting our crops was very exciting to me for graduate school. I identify as DeafBlind, and was born in New York State with moderate to severe hearing loss; I lost my vision as a teenager due to the recessive genetic disorder known as Usher Syndrome. I began using ASL to communicate during my undergraduate years at RIT/NTID, but have since lost those skills. It has been hard being apart from a deaf community for so long. 

Anne: I am a PhD candidate in Horticulture at Cornell carrying out research in viticulture, by evaluating impacts of canopy management practices on above and below-ground parameters in grapevines. I’ve always been very passionate about fruit crop production and hope to go into extension, to teach students in the vineyard or orchard about management practices, to develop my own teaching videos on all things fruit crop and wine related in ASL, and one day, possibly to own a farm winery. I was born profoundly deaf in Connecticut and grew up with SimCom (Simultaneous Communication), initially learning SEE (Signed Exact English), then later, ASL, when I improved my fluency during my postgraduate years in Colorado. 


Tell us about your discovery that you were not the only deaf student when you started your graduate program.

Breanne: Day 1 during the School of Integrative Plant Sciences (SIPS) graduate school orientation I was wondering, “why does the interpreter keep looking at someone else?” If only you could hear my thoughts that day; I was so shocked (and thrilled!) when I pieced it together! Looking back, I have no idea who was presenting or what they were talking about. I was ecstatic to meet Anne that day, a fellow deaf woman and someone whose smile melted away the stress of that orientation day on this brand new campus.

Anne: It really made my day when I learned of Breanne — I got goosebumps when I learned that I wasn’t the only deaf person and just had to meet her. I am so proud of Breanne for pressing on, reading thousands of papers, looking at microscopes, advocating for herself to get her guide dog, advocating for others, and continuing to succeed in her program. And I love being able to just communicate with her in sign and not have to worry as much about my speech! She is probably one of the first Deaf, and first DeafBlind in academia at Cornell’s AgriTech campus in Geneva and is making a huge impact there. Meanwhile, I have been staying in Ithaca, where my research is, and have been working as a Graduate Community Advisor for the graduate, post-doc, and visiting scholar housing community on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. I have also been educating the residents in the graduate community, which is predominantly international students, about people with disabilities. These residents, whom I love so much (they spark so much joy), either have a lack of or a rudimentary understanding of people with disabilities, as their native countries either suppress or hide their disabled citizens. They have been incredibly open and have shared with me that their experiences as foreigners are in some ways similar: having to navigate American sociocultural norms and encountering miscommunication and misconceptions. Many of them have made a lot of effort to communicate with me when we had trouble understanding each other! It’s encouraging to see that. In this context, Breanne and I have shared our thoughts, feelings, and strategies for working with people who have not had exposure to the deaf and disability communities. 


Tell us of other ways that having deaf fellow students on campus have impacted you.

Breanne: In our second year, Anne introduced me to a new third Deaf person on campus — a new law student who already had a PhD, Dr. Caroline Block! We had a group facebook message going and we shared our experiences with the handful of ASL interpreters being assigned to us. We found out that whenever one of us requested a different interpreter, Cornell Student Disability Services would trade our interpreters mid-semester. When personal style is the issue, it’s okay to retain the interpreter for another student, but that wasn’t the case here. These interpreters sometimes didn’t have the experience necessary to interpret doctoral level courses, would check their phones mid-lectures, and would not wear black clothing despite knowing I’m blind. Thankfully, the three of us decided to meet with Student Disability Services and demanded that all ASL interpreters adhere to professional policy, and that one interpreter in particular never be hired for any other Cornell student again. Also, please let me note that we’ve also had some amazing interpreters, ones that are proficient and root for us every step of the way in our PhDs.

I remember early on in my studies being so stressed from the commuting to and from the Geneva campus, the culture shock of attending this big Ivy League university, and having to try and remember if I had requested access services (and if so, which ones?) for this event or that lecture. However, the absolute hardest part was falling victim to ‘the hidden curriculum,’ the unwritten norms and unspoken expectations that many underrepresented minority (URM) doctoral students are not aware of. My mother was the first in our family to go to college and got her Bachelor’s degree when I was growing up, and then I was the first in my family to pursue a PhD. It seemed like every graduate student in my department had at least one parent who had a PhD. I did not have many close friends in my program, and I felt so alone. Honestly, I had just kind of accepted this fate, that “okay, this is Cornell, they don’t have Deaf students or a deaf community in Ithaca”, that I truly did not think I should try to change things. I eventually realized it wasn’t just me. Cornell was not set up to support us and we needed to work exponentially harder than our peers just to survive. Without having Anne and Caroline to talk to for mutual support, I would have continued to think that my failure to thrive was my own fault.

On days where I did not feel like continuing on in the PhD program, I would still get out of bed and try because I knew that I represented so many Blind and disabled people out there who are told to pursue a career that “suits their blindness.” This is something my own family and friends told me too. As a disabled person who’s made it this far, I feel it is my duty to pave the way and make it easier for those who come after me. Anne and I are both trailblazers. I didn’t really know what was expected of me in terms of my doctoral research, but it was obvious that this place wasn’t inclusive to people like us so I buried myself in advocacy. I was committed to making Cornell a better and more equitable and inclusive place to go to graduate school. I was elected to and served on the Presidential Task Force that was formed in response to horrible incidents of racial bias in Ithaca, I served as the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) Student Advocacy Committee Chair, I wrote the mental health & well-being section of the Graduate and Professional Community Initiative (the GPSA’s 5 year strategic plan, administration use it to inform the decisions they make for our community), I worked closely with other student leaders, administration, deans, and people in Cornell Health and was very successful. 

However, I can honestly say that I’m not sure if I would have made it this far in the program if Anne weren’t here, starting a PhD in the plant sciences at the same exact time. Anne is the only other scientist I have ever been able to use ASL with at a Cornell event, and someone who was dealing with so many of the same struggles as me. Having her to validate my experiences is what kept me strong enough to self-advocate in the face of trial after trial. We both eventually passed our A exams (doctoral candidacy exams), and we both felt embarrassed about when we did it — as if there was an unspoken timeline that we did not achieve compared to our hearing peers. However, I firmly believe that what matters most is crossing the finish line and not how fast you got there. I know that we will both cheer each other on during our dissertation defenses and both be successful in passing those too. I cannot stress enough how knowledgeable and skilled Anne is as a viticulturist and scientific researcher. This plant sciences are blessed to have a woman like her pursuing her PhD in a lab and university that has global recognition, and any institution would be lucky to have the chance to hire someone who is both so scholarly yet so pleasant to work with.

Anne: Yes, I echo Breanne’s statements about our experiences. We had challenges with the interpreters initially. I have had several interpreters who are lovely people, but I had to ask them to be more professional (wearing black, etc). One of them kept violating professionalism and had been passed around among the deaf students, so, with the power of three outstanding deaf scholars, myself, Breanne, and Dr. Block, who now has a PhD and a JD, we collectively met with the Student Disability Services to ask that the interpreter be removed. Since then, the interpreting agency, when faced with an interpreter shortage, kept bringing them up, asking if we were okay with scheduling them if nobody was available. We all would decline and change our meetings to avoid that situation. We are grateful that Cornell Student Disability Services has changed a lot since then, with the hiring of a wonderful disability accommodation access specialist who made an effort to learn ASL and all about Deaf culture! This specialist has gone above and beyond, so that is a change we are very pleased about – they have been very easy for me to work with. Plus they have honored my request to work with specific interpreters and not once did they assign me to someone who is not a good fit for me. I was able to focus a lot more on my studies, since this communication specialist has been hired. My student disability counselor, who has a disability, is also fantastic, and together with the accommodation specialist and the new director, created the change we needed.

Also, Breanne has done outstanding work with the GPSA and Presidential Task Force, and the American Phytopathological Society (APS) conference committee, bringing a lot of much needed change. And this is something we’ve also noticed: there is the hidden curriculum, sociocultural norms, and much more that many miss, not only in the deaf/HoH+ community, but also those in the disabled, first gen, and other minority communities. We hope to see Cornell doing something about it, developing a workshop or two to address the hidden curriculum, so we have been bringing specific aspects to light through our social platforms. I have been blessed with people including my family and my advisor who brought the bulk of the hidden curriculum to light, but many others are not as lucky. So the pipeline in retaining STEM scholars is leaky as people drop out or change their career paths. Again, Breanne and I have conversed a lot through various mediums, brainstorming approaches to educate people while supporting each other. She and I have also been overcoming challenges in our respective PhD programs and cheered each other on when we reach milestones. I received a conditional pass on my A exam and did not become a PhD candidate until my fourth year, which I was very embarrassed about, compared to others in similar fields, yet Breanne really cheered me on. When she shares her accomplishments with me, I have so much pride and joy for her! 


What other challenges have you found remain for you in grad school, despite having the support of deaf colleagues?

Breanne: Cornell in general – it is not a welcoming or inclusive place for people like us, or us specifically. We’ve had faculty that are supposed to support, advise, and mentor us practically turn their backs on us at certain points in our programs. Even our professional support system is fragile. Luckily our support has grown, our access services are far better, and we now have an ASL professor on campus, Brenda Schertz. I am very hopeful that ASL and the deaf community will grow here. With this, I hope every student can find the mutual support Anne and I found in each other.

Additionally, I have since received my first guide dog which has significantly improved my personal and professional life. People in my department seemed confused as to why I needed one, I barely even used my white cane. However, they didn’t see me fall off the steps of the stairs inside the plant science building during my graduate school interview, my heart rate spike every time I stood at the top of the stairs when all the light bulbs were out, or all the bruises I had from travelling to/from work and running errands. I was so fortunate to have advisors that sought education directly from me on life as a scientist with a guide dog and supported me. In the United States, service dogs are allowed in all public facing businesses, even in hospitals, but individual institutions and professors often bar students and employees with service dogs from working in the laboratory. The only time a service dog should ever be barred from a scientific lab is if it would hurt the integrity of the research itself (i.e. an experiment on bird behavior when birds see dogs as predators) or if the research could seriously harm the service animal despite them wearing similar PPE to humans and staying out the way as service dogs are trained to do.I am deeply grateful for Cornell Student Disability Services and both of my advisors’ full support in this area, but the stress was certainly still there. I could so easily be denied access to my lab space like so many of my blind and disabled colleagues. I will not stop advocating for changes in this space because I have always firmly believed that science is for everyone. How can we recruit and retain diverse scientists if you reject a freshman from taking your introductory chemistry lab course because they have a service dog to mitigate their disability? Anne and I frequently speak out about our frustrations that despite endless conversations about ‘diversity,’ nobody seems to value disability as part of the beautiful spectrum of diverse and underrepresented people we need to support in STEM, and we are trying to change that.

When participating in a panel discussion in the DEAF ROC conference in Rochester, NY in 2019 called, “Successfully Advocating & Maintaining Relationships with Access Services,” I learned about PhD students having uniquely assigned ASL interpreters who they were able to develop a close working relationship with. This situation allows interpreters to learn  the subject matter as the students develop their expertise throughout the years, and allows for more seamless communication with advisors and labmates. It also removes the burden from Deaf students of trying to remember whether or not they have requested interpreters for an event yet, since interpreters essentially maintain their same meeting schedule. Bringing disabled people together to share experiences is crucial, because this arrangement  is something I never would have dreamed of asking for, yet would clearly benefit most Deaf PhD students. I firmly believe that this should become the norm for graduate school education, where 4-6 years are spent working tirelessly to become an expert and create new knowledge in a highly specialized field. In addition, I also look forward to continuing to work with Anne and other disabled colleagues, and pursuing a career that allows me to make drastic changes to make STEM more accessible, equitable, and inclusive for people of all historically underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds.

Anne: While we are very grateful for this opportunity to pursue a PhD at one of the world’s most renowned universities, Cornell generally needs a lot of advocacy to be kept accountable in adhering to its “any person, any study” motto. There is a lot administrators don’t know that we d/Deaf, DeafBlind, HoH, and other members of the disabled community continue to try to educate them about. There are things that we need in order to succeed, and we find ourselves advocating a lot for our needs to be met, and for policies to be put in place for future students so they can focus on their studies more. Unfortunately, there are still some people who question our abilities to do something simply based on our disability or hearing status. I have been lucky to be surrounded by excellent people in the viticulture and enology industry who are working to make the field more accessible. Breanne and I constantly have to remind people to look at the person, their passion and perseverance, as well as what they bring to the table, and not accept stereotypes held by the world. There are a couple of valuable resources already available including a wonderful paper done by our colleagues in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) discussing strategies for at-risk scientists, and while they are helpful, there is still a gap when it comes to the deaf/HOH+ communities. I look forward to seeing a time when these gaps are all filled!

Due to recent racism and bias incidents, people at Cornell are beginning to open their minds to issues that disabled scholars too have been facing. Since we started in 2016, we have been advocating for captioning or transcriptions for podcasts and videos, contacting many clubs and departments, especially Cornell’s own Diversity and Inclusion office. Now Cornell does that by default much more often than they used to. There is still work to do but I am pleased with the progress we have made so far. I have been working with Cornell Dining to encourage them to develop alternative ways to order food, such as providing a paper and pen. While they listened to me, they decided to develop an app, “Get Set”, which allows students and faculty/staff to order ahead of time. It is a wonderful idea, however, there are people who don’t use smartphones and paper and pen are still not available. So that is a work in progress. 

Breanne and I plan to co-author a paper to share our experiences of working with deaf/HOH + scientists, especially those with intersecting identities, to provide a framework for future mentors and scholars One thing we will highlight is the need for a designated interpreter who is to be assigned to that student only, going with that student everywhere, as needed, and to be on call for last minute meetings, like statistical consulting drop ins. We would love to see more Black and other minority deaf entering Cornell and we will advocate for the assigning of interpreters who are culturally similar e.g. Black interpreters, upon request. It is very encouraging to see the changes that are occurring.

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