Jane Fernandes speaks both English and American Sign Language fluently, and often at the same time – her fingers flashing along with her spoken words in seemingly effortless unison.
But straddling the worlds of those who can and can’t hear has sometimes been a struggle. As a child, she was taught to read lips and imitate the sounds of a language she’s never heard, and didn’t learn sign language until her 20s – a fact that became fuel for protests against her appointment as president of a college for the deaf.
Long an outsider in both worlds, however, Fernandes has found a home as president of Guilford College, whose close-knit community has embraced having the nation’s first deaf female president as its leader since 2014. Ed Winslow, chair of Guilford’s board of trustees, says Fernandes is popular among students and has been able to navigate difficult economic times, with government support for higher education contracting and other market forces putting pressure on smaller colleges.
She has also led an effort to revamp the college’s focus to better fit the current landscape and draw in quality administrators. Winslow also credits excitement over her hire with a bump in enrollment last year. “People are frankly inspired by her,” says Winslow, a Greensboro lawyer who has been on the board more than a decade.