Jane Fernandes begins first term


Niki Gaines/Guilfordian

For the first time since its establishment in 1837, Guilford College has a female president: Jane Fernandes.

“My first impression of Jane is that she gets us,” said Assistant Professor of English Mylène Dressler. “She speaks the language of Guilford, and I’m so excited and encouraged by that. I’m struck by her combination of humility and compassion with authority and ambition, and I feel like that is Guilford in a nutshell.”

Fernandes’ first visit to Guilford was prompted by the invitation by faculty members, such as Thomas Guthrie, department chair and associate professor of sociology and anthropology. In 2013, Guthrie invited Fernandes to speak before the students in his IDS course, “The Politics of Difference,” on the topic of deaf culture.

After learning news of former President and Professor of Political Science Kent Chabotar’s approaching retirement, Guthrie thought Fernandes would be a great fit for Guilford. Guthrie shared a story about a conversation he had with Fernandes in the past.

“As a testament to how modest she is: I said something like ‘Jane, our president is retiring, and we’re going to be searching for a new president,’” said Guthrie. “She said, unassumingly, ‘Yes.’”

“I just kind of paused and hinted to her, ‘Yeah, I think you would be a really great candidate to apply,’ and she was totally taken aback. She said, “Wow, I never even thought of that. I think that would be a lot to have a deaf president at a hearing school.’ I said ‘Well, we can make it work.’”

Many faculty and students share an ambition and sense of fitting at Guilford, a calling that Fernandes felt as well.

“Over a period (of) about one year and a half, gradually, I felt a call to serve as Guilford’s president,” said Fernandes. “What called me was a strong sense of belonging here. Although I am a different person, as a deaf person, I felt that the Guilford College community would welcome me.

“Since I’ve been working here now for nine weeks, I still feel a strong sense of being called to serve this college as president.”

Outside of Guilford, Fernandes enjoys taking walks and finding relaxation in nature. As a comparative literature scholar, Fernandes loves to read. Among her favorite books are inspiring autobiographies such as “Midstream” by Helen Keller and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Currently, Fernandes has been reading a lot on Quaker heritage out of both fascination and interest in maintaining the college’s Quaker values.

“I’ve started to read some of the papers that we have here from Mary Mendenhall Hobbs,” said Fernandes. “I think that’s what will help me better be able to understand the values for which Guilford was founded and help to maintain them.”

While Fernandes does not practice Quakerism, many students including sophomore Community Senate Treasurer Mara Stern have found that it is her values that truly matter.

“I’m not a Quaker, but I love the ideology behind it, and I think at Guilford that’s something students really embrace,” said Stern. “I think that Jane chose Guilford because she really appreciates what Quaker values bring to this institution.”

Many individuals within the Guilford community have found themselves forming a personal bond with Fernandes. Sophomore Community Senate President José Oliva had a positive experience during his first meeting with Fernandes.

“We talked about the growing population of immigrants and refugees in the area, as well as the different work Guilford does among these communities,” said Oliva. “I wanted her to get the job, and she wished me luck as the student government elections were happening the week after.”

As Guilford’s first deaf president, Fernandes has brought a new culture to the campus. This could be the beginning of a new level of diversity at Guilford.

“Why is it that we’ve never had another deaf person on our staff or our faculty?” asked Professor of History and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean Adrienne Israel. “It really hit me that, gee, I was the first black woman hired here on the faculty, and so I know how it feels to be the first of something.  It was a really strange, isolating feeling.”

In the old Guilford library, Fernandes now sits in the president’s chair, prepared to listen to both students and faculty. When asked what students should know about her, Fernandes stated, “I’m here for them.”