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Deaf Student Breaks Barriers

Serge Okogo signs "AU" in the SIS Atrium.

Serge Okogo has a very specific—and personal—reason for pursuing a master’s degree in the Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs program at the School for International Service. He believes it will help him further the rights of disabled people in developing countries.

It’s an area in which he is knowledgeable. Okogo himself is deaf.

“According to the World Federation of the Deaf, at least 90 percent of deaf people in developing countries have no education at all,” Okogo explained. “This means there are over 180 million deaf people in the world without education.”

His activism surfaced when he was growing up in Gabon. He served as president of a national association that advocates on behalf of people who are deaf and, later, as vice president of a federation that connects disability organizations across the country.

“My passion for working on behalf of those who are the most vulnerable took me to Haiti over spring break of 2011,” he said. He volunteered on a project to improve educational programs at the Institut Montfort and St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince, pushing educators to allow children to use local sign language.

During previous internships, Okogo organized after-school activities for youngsters at schools for the deaf in Mali and Gabon.

“Serge is fearless and bold and intellectually curious. He’s crossing national borders and breaking sound, language and racial barriers, all while operating at the graduate level,” said Professor Barbara Wien, who teaches Okogo in her Peace Paradigms course.

At AU, two sign-language interpreters accompany Okogo, who lost his hearing as a young child. He can read, write and speak French and is fluent in American Sign Language and Gabonese Sign Language. In addition, he reads and writes in English and writes and speaks two native languages of Gabon: Obamba and Bateke.

Okogo studied economics in his own country. In May, he graduated from Gallaudet University with a degree in business administration and international relations and then spent the summer in a United Nations internship.

Both Wien and Michael Schroeder, who teaches a course in International Organizations, said Okogo brings unusual on-the-ground experience that broadens their class discussions.

Okogo has a reputation for setting the bar high. While studying at Gallaudet, he worked at Gallaudet University Press, served as vice chair of the student advisory board for the Department of Business and was president of the Black Deaf Student Union. He also collaborated with his mentor, Cristina Berdichevsky, on the International Deaf Partnership Project (IDF).

“It’s a deaf-friendly version of the Peace Corps that promotes deaf empowerment and solidarity across cultures in Latin America and francophone Africa,” explained Okogo. “In connection with IDP, I participated in the Clinton Global Initiative for university students in 2010 and 2011 and received a distinction as a global citizen in April 2012.”

At AU, he is a research associate for the Center for Research on Collaboratories and Technology Enhanced Learning Communities (COTELCO) and will be working on several new projects within the Center.

And what will he do in December 2014, when he completes the AU program?

“My dream is to become a diplomat for Gabon and to partner with the government and with businesses around the world to better address the challenges and opportunities triggered by globalization,” Okogo said.