Alfred University’s Common Ground course was piloted last fall through the generous philanthropic support of our University’s Board of Trustees. It builds on our University’s distinguished tradition of being inclusive from the start. For example, Alfred University was the first institution of higher education in the United States to both admit women and allow them to pursue the same full course of studies offered to male students. Our first class had 22 female and 14 male students. Just as significant, Alfred University also was one of the first higher educational institutions to admit African American and Native American students.
Common Ground became a required one-credit course for all of our new undergraduate students as of this fall. The course consists of weekly dialogue, in small groups of 18 or so students, facilitated by a faculty or staff member. Common Ground has two central objectives: to help our students better understand the different backgrounds, perspectives, and aspirations that they bring to our campus; and to arrive at a set of common values that our students are willing to commit to living by as citizens of the Alfred University community.
Three times this fall, our Common Ground students and their facilitators have had the opportunity to hear from panelists in plenary sessions organized by the two lead coordinators for the program: professors Melissa Ryan and Bob Stein. Three weeks ago, for example, there was a plenary session focused on Disability Awareness featuring three panelists: Philip Rich ’76 (B.A., liberal arts); current student Julio Fuentes; and Alexis “Alix” Clare, professor of glass science.
Phil, who is blind, is a licensed social worker in Albany who advocates for the blind and disabled. Alix, who has taught at Alfred for more than three decades, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2007 automobile accident. Julio first enrolled at Alfred University in 2005 and suffered a severe spinal injury during a football game the following year that left him paralyzed and told that he would never walk again. In 2016, after years of physical rehabilitation, Julio stood on the football field at Yunevich Stadium and took several steps with a walker. Today, although he does spend time in a wheelchair, Julio can walk without the assistance of a walker. Through a full scholarship approved by our Board of Trustees, Julio has re-enrolled at Alfred and is pursuing a degree in counseling psychology.
During the Common Ground plenary session, all three panelists spoke about the impact of their disabilities; public misconceptions of people with disabilities; and why the topic of disabilities is important to them.
Phil spoke of being treated differently from others due to his disability. “I’ve had instances where I’ve been ignored…It’s because people don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m very proud of my accomplishments.”
Alix’s husband is disabled, which she said helped her adjust following her accident. “It was a real advantage to me. He encouraged me to do things and I was not allowed to say I couldn’t do it.”
She said people assume, incorrectly, that her disability requires help from others. “I’m pretty sturdy, to be honest,” she remarked. “I don’t need help as much it appears I do. Don’t feel sorry for me—I’m doing alright.”
Julio said that, since his injury, he has had to adapt to a world that does not always accommodate people with disabilities. Stores and restaurants are not always accessible to people with disabilities. It’s something he admits he was unaware of prior to his injury.
“There are thousands of people out there who go unnoticed, who have to deal with the structural problems of our society,” he said. “Before I got hurt, I didn’t realize a lot of those things. Unless you’re in a wheelchair, or deal with someone in a wheelchair on a daily basis, it’s a hard concept to grasp.”
The messages from Phil, Alix, and Julio were clear. People with disabilities don’t want to be recognized for being different or defined by their limitations. Rather, they want to be celebrated for what we all have in common: a desire for respect and the opportunity to live a full life.
Whether it be in regard to disabilities—or differences in race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, political outlook, sexual orientation, introversion/extroversion, or academic major—Common Ground has helped spread the message of understanding, respect, and kindness across our campus, thereby building on the inclusivity that is at the core of Alfred University’s DNA.
Please join me in thanking our trustees for their generous operating support of Common Ground since last fall. Please also join me in thanking the trustees and other alumni and friends who have philanthropically invested in creating an endowment to ensure that Common Ground will be sustained at Alfred University for as long as we welcome new undergraduate students to our campus. If you are interested in supporting the Common Ground endowment, please let me know.