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Photo by Doris Alcántara Quiñones
Doris Alcántara Quiñones with her mother during her college graduation.

Doris Alcántara Quiñones and her story as a deaf student at Harvard

Doris Alcántara Quiñones, a talented young woman who has experienced adversity and continues to thrive in a world that fails to acknowledge and embrace her

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Photo: Doris Alcántara Quiñones

Doris Alcántara Quiñones is a talented young woman who has experienced adversity and continues to thrive in a world that fails to acknowledge the strides she’s made. Al Dia News had the pleasure to interview Ms. Quiñones and learn about her passion for education, and how she embraces being deaf in a world that continues to lament her lack of hearing.

Doris was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. She describes her upbringing in Hell’s kitchen to be a rich nuyorican culture, seeing people playing dominoes on the corner of 52nd street in front of the local bodega, where one could find typical Puerto Rican snacks like queso blanco, guava, and salchichon; these small things that made her feel closer to the nuyorican culture. Although she wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, her mother was born in Guánica, Puerto Rico, and made sure Doris got to experience the little things from back home. Her late father was an undocumented immigrant from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  

Educational and Language barriers

Doris attended mainstream schooling throughout her K-12 education. At the age of six, her hearing was detected but no academic adjustments were made since educators thought it wasn’t impacting her academically, and proceeded to keep her in mainstream schooling while attending speech therapy multiple days a week after school. This “adjustment” only disregarded the desperate need for accommodation in an environment that should foster active learning and comprehension. 

While in middle school, her grades started to reflect how useless the “adjustment” had been at meeting her needs. She started failing classes which prompted an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which according to the Department of Education “is a written plan for the provision of services for the education of students who are disabled or gifted.” Doris states that “while my accommodations felt sufficient at the time. I know now that they were very much centered in trying to make me learn ‘normally,’ as opposed to utilizing my skills to help me learn more efficiently.” 

She emphasizes how she learned through the arts as a member of the 52nd Street Project, a non-profit theater program based in empowering the youth in Hell’s Kitchen through art education, by creating “a series of unique mentoring programs that match kids with professional theater artists,” states 52nd Street Project’s website. 

52nd Street Project was Doris’ creative outlet where she got the opportunity to improve her writing skills and express herself. 

Although Doris is the only person in her family who knows how to sign, she understands the challenges this presents. She recalls being a child and attending speech therapy for years and is able to speak English and Spanish. While she understands how important it is for her to speak English and Spanish, “I do like to note that attending speech therapy came at the expense of missing out on social interactions and after school activities, time that I now feel could have been spent developing my academic and social abilities. I also got by using lip- reading,” said Doris, who actively lip-reads her family and non-signers. 

She faced many challenges in middle school and high school. As part of her IEP, she used an FM Unit, which was a microphone system teachers wore that was linked to her hearing aids. One would think this would ease the burdens of not hearing her teachers or peers but was utilized to taunt her disability. It was intended to be an assistive device for the classroom. “I remember a student in middle school snatching the FM Unit and speaking into the microphone ‘can you hear me now?!’ Luckily that didn’t last too long” says Doris. 

However, high school presented a new set of challenges, but at least her high school peers were vocal and would assist when needed. Sadly, teachers continue to exhibit discriminatory behaviors and tactics to further hinder her ability to learn. Some teachers would scream to draw the attention of the class while at her back, where she couldn’t hear or see the teacher. Others would teach in the dark or talk to the board, where she couldn’t read their lips, and would tell her that it wasn’t that she couldn’t hear, but that she didn’t want to listen. 

This shows how the State Educational Agencies (SEAs), whose duty is to ensure all employees and participants of the school or institution are educated on how to manage students with disabilities, and do so in a nondiscriminatory manner, failed to implement, protect, and meet Doris’ needs. “It didn’t matter how hard I tried, I was struggling to just barely pass my classes, even attending credit recovery summer school. I’ll admit, at some point the failure was so overwhelming that I had practically given up. I’d turn off my hearing aids and let the days pass,” said Doris. 

The educators failed her. The system failed her. They continued to break her spirit, dreams, and self-worth. They had succeeded, not in educating this young lady, but in making her think she was not enough because of a disability that should have been properly addressed. 

She started learning American Sign Language (ASL) at the age of 17 when she attended Gallaudet University’s JumpStart Program, which is a summer intensive program to help incoming deaf and hard of hearing students who have limited understanding of ASL. This program only gives incoming students a month to learn ASL prior to being fully immersed in an ASL dominant social environment. Doris feels ASL showed her “the value of access to signed languages for the Deaf and hard of hearing, and sparked my curiosity about signed languages and education.” 

According to the National Association of the Deaf, “the United States has an estimated 308,648 deaf or hard of hearing children between the ages of 5 and 17. Of these, approximately 75,000 are on IEPs, and roughly 20.8% are in specialized schools and programs for deaf and hard of hearing students.”

Upon officially graduating from high school with a 1.7 GPA she attended Gallaudet University because it was the only university in the world in which all programs and services are designed for the Deaf and hard of hearing students. Where Doris felt “social status came to take a new meaning. I, along with my other new signer peers, were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but I didn’t let that get in the way of my academics.” 

 

Photo: Doris Alcántara Quiñones

Quiñones is no stranger to life’s constant challenges. But nothing could prepare her for the death of her father, who passed away due to stage four pancreatic cancer during her second semester in college. “He passed away a few weeks later, but I took the year off from college to grieve and to work on my mental health” says Doris. 

Once a year had passed, Doris returned to Gallaudet University, where she spent her junior year developing and proposing a research project “The Current Status of Deaf Education in the Dominican Republic,” that she was able to expand to include schools from different parts of the country in addition to the capital. She was able to accomplish this thanks to the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which “enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad, providing them with skills critical to our national security and economic prosperity.” As a result, she was able to present this work at the American Educational Research Association in 2019.

Photo: Doris Alcántara Quiñones

Success

During the American Educational Research Association conference in 2019, she was informed about her U.S. Fulbright Student Award, which, according to its website, “expands perspectives through academic and professional advancement and cross-cultural dialogue. Fulbright creates connections in a complex and changing world. In partnership with more than 140 countries worldwide, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers unparalleled opportunities in all academic disciplines to passionate and accomplished graduating college seniors, graduate students, and young professionals from all backgrounds.” 

As a first generation, neither of her parents had graduated college, and there she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree with the intent to make a difference. “Life is somewhat simpler when you have other people’s footsteps to help you navigate and direct yourself. When people refer to trail blazers they often refer to their results, but the heart of the journey is the work that it took to arrive at that point,” said Doris. 

After graduating from Gallaudet University Magna Cum Laude, she embarked on  a Fulbright Program to the Dominican Republic. “Completing my Fulbright was an incredibly humbling experience, engaging in cross cultural experiences with the community contributed to shared understanding that have helped the growth of all the communities involved. As [a] Dominican Diaspora, being able to complete my Fulbright in the Dominican Republic felt especially enriching. I was able to immerse myself in Dominican culture, and not only was I falling in love with the culture, but in being able to be in a place that I can call my roots. I was able to gain a sense of connection with the Isla that I would not have experienced otherwise,” said Doris.

Although, Covid interrupted her stay in the Dominican Republic, she was able to work at a charter school in NYC. A few months into her job, she realized she could make more of an impact in the field of education by continuing her studies and decided to apply to graduate school. 

Doris is currently a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HSGE), pursuing an ED.M (Masters) in Education Policy and Analysis. She never aspired to attend Harvard because as a child, this university was part of a social status that was out of her reach. But this mentality later changed when she immersed herself in education and realized the decision to attend Harvard was not for her but “it was more about getting an education where I could learn to empower others to the highest degree of my potential,” said the twenty-five year old. 

She wanted a program that would strengthen her advocacy skills and provide a safe space for her to think about innovation and how to improve the field of education so that future generations of children with diverse identities do not have to experience the educational barriers and challenges that currently exist. 

Although she was excited, there were fears of how to financially support her higher education endeavors. HSGE granted her an Educational Leadership Fellowship Award, which covers half of the tuition cost, in addition, she was awarded a Faculty Tribute Award which provided more financial support. She was able to attend the university thanks to these awards and loans. 

But she is not done yet. Her goal is to take part in cross-cultural initiatives for governments worldwide to commit to improving educational practices. A particular initiative that Doris is invested in is the UN’s Education for All initiative, which highlights the need for educational facilities, and how to build prosperous, healthy and equitable societies. 

Motivation

Doris keeps herself motivated by remembering all the challenges she has endured and how difficult it has been for her to have opportunities, and it is her duty to pave the way for the future generation. 

Her motto in life is “Pa’ lante,” a contraction of “para adelante” a Puerto Rican and Dominican Slang word used to “indicate concepts such as encouragement, enthusiasm, resolve, and progress” as stated by Thoughtco. The word can also mean “to move forward.” “Pa’ lante represents the movement onward, it means perseverance as you continue working towards better tomorrows,” says Doris. 

She wants others to remember to be humble enough to understand they are still learning, but wise enough to know when to rebel. Doris states “complacency is not an agent of change,” and fear can play a role in keeping someone stagnant. She experienced many fears during her Undergraduate degree but she still managed to give it her all despite questioning whether her best would be good enough. This further attest how educators have the ability to impart change and derail a student’s ability to trust how capable they are and can be. 

In moments like those when she finds herself doubting if her efforts will be enough she is reminded of the song “Breathe” from Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, which resembles and depicts the fear that you would disappoint the people who believe in you. 

As a neurodivergent, who suffers from ADHD, Doris hopes that in the coming years society is able to learn more about neurodiversity and the way it can be more inclusive to utilize it as a strength. 

Many people view deafness as a disability instead of having a dis-ability or unique ability. “A person with a disability is not always about lacking a given ability, but at the heart of the experience is the ability to navigate life using methods unlike that of what society is used to. I do not think the word disability is a bad word. I think words gain the connotation that we as a society assign them— if society stops treating disabilities as a negative concept then the negative connotation will transform alongside the societal mindset,” explains Doris. 

She likes to attribute her love for education to professor Dr. Catherine O’Brien, a government and research methods course and mentored her through her research in the Dominican Republic. Doris recalls “my earliest memory of her is when she said ‘knowledge is power’ something my mom always told me growing up. My mom is a paraprofessional at a high school in South Bronx, she has been in Special Education for the past 15 years.” 

Her final words of wisdom for Latino students with disabilities trying to pursue a degree in higher education are “to embrace their disability, learn about it, and do not be afraid to ask for accommodations in any environment, academic, professional, and even social environment.” 
 

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