Just two weeks after Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano’86 took office as president of Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University in January, she experienced what could only be described as a trial by snowstorm.
“Snowzilla” was one of the region’s worst winter storms on record, dumping up to three feet of snow on parts of the D.C. metro region during the span of one weekend and leaving much of the city socked in. Those who relied on trains and buses found themselves stranded, and a few neighborhoods, as well as some buildings on Gallaudet’s campus, lost power.
This wasn’t the first challenge that Cordano, who became president of the renowned school for deaf and hard of hearing students on January 1, was required to overcome in her decades-long career in law, education, and public service. Born deaf herself, she had resolved to become a lawyer at the age of 13 after her sister experienced discrimination due to her perceived disability. Both of Cordano’s parents are deaf, as well as one of her two sisters.
Gallaudet was always in Cordano’s blood. Both of her parents are alumni, and they instilled a loyalty and reverence for the school in her from a young age. When Cordano was applying to colleges in the early 1980s, however, most law schools didn’t welcome deaf students, including graduates from Gallaudet. Her parents, fearing that she wouldn’t be able to achieve her goals if she attended their alma mater, encouraged her to apply elsewhere.
“They said, ‘If you really want to be a lawyer, and you want to beat the odds, you’re going to have to be able to bear with the fact that you have to go to a hearing college,’” she remembers. “They told me to pick a liberal arts college, something similar to Gallaudet, that was small, where I could be successful.” She decided to attend Beloit, where she majored in sociology. She went on to law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But back to the snowstorm. Cordano, a former assistant attorney general for
the State of Minnesota who previously worked at a health and human services nonprofit in St. Paul, scrambled to come up with solutions for problems outside her realm of professional experience. Working with campus staff and administrators, she figured out how to feed hungry students when the cafeteria lost power and deputize staff to remove piles of snow from the sidewalks so that students weren’t trapped in their residence halls.
At one point, Cordano opened up her on-campus home to the families of young students at the university’s elementary and secondary schools.
“We have 17 families that live here with their children that are from a very young age up until much older children,” she explains. “The temperatures had
dropped from 67 degrees to 47 degrees in the places [where they were living] because we lost heat.” Cordano estimates that at one point there were almost 50 people in her house. She had enough stockpiled food to feed them all because she and her spouse, Mary, have two teenage sons.
Reflecting on the snowstorm three months later, Cordano says that it gave her the perfect opportunity to bond with students, as well as support their leadership. She explains that before she even took office, students made it clear that they wanted all of her campus communications to be released in both written form and visually via vlogs (video blogs) in American Sign Language, reflecting Gallaudet’s status as a bilingual university. During the snowstorm, the campus’s crisis leadership team wrote an email to students about what they needed to do, prompting a response from student body government leaders asking where the president’s vlog was.
“Within 24 hours, students produced a signing vlog for the whole community based on what was written in that email,” she says, noting that it typically takes professional videographers on Gallaudet’s staff two to three days to produce a video. Cordano and the students collaborated on a script, and they filmed Cordano relaying the messages about campus safety in ASL. “They set up a new gold standard for providing access and making sure that we have bilingual communications,” she says of students.
Cordano’s presidency comes during a decades-long controversy involving Gallaudet’s leadership following student protests in 1988 known as the “Deaf President Now” movement. Those efforts resulted in the appointment of I. King Jordan, the first deaf president in the school’s 152-year-history. Student activism was sparked again in 2006 when the board of trustees appointed a woman president who was deaf, but not a native speaker of ASL. The board ultimately terminated her presidency before she took office after a vote of no confidence from the faculty.
Cordano is now the fourth deaf president to hold office, and the first deaf woman to do so.
Of her own undergraduate experience, Cordano says that the community of friends she found at Beloit played a huge role in helping her to succeed academically. As a senior, she paid the kindness forward by taking Jennifer Nelson, a deaf first-year student from Madison who didn’t speak sign language, under her wing.
“Bobbi and her mother and sister encouraged me to go to Gallaudet, at least for a while, to immerse myself and claim my heritage,” Nelson says. She transferred from Beloit to Gallaudet for her sophomore year and learned to sign, ultimately claiming a diving scholarship at George Washington University and finishing up her undergraduate studies there. Today, she is an English professor at Gallaudet. “I think President Cordano has brought a much-needed boost in morale to our university,” she adds.
More than anything, Cordano is grateful to be leading a school that she has always felt was calling to her.
“That old adage, I think, applies here—to those whom much has been given, much is expected, and I’ve had so much opportunity in my life.”
Katherine Flynn’11 is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and assistant editor for the award-winning Preservation Magazine.