Apple CEO Tim Cook to Gallaudet graduates: ‘Lead with your values’

Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades.
Apple CEO Tim Cook and his ASL interpreter communicate to the crowds during the graduation ceremony for Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2022.

It started with a tweet.

In a video last month, Gallaudet University senior Molly Feanny signed a message to Apple chief executive Tim Cook, inviting him to deliver the school’s commencement address. About an hour later, Cook had accepted — and on Friday he stood in front of the Class of 2022, where he imparted advice, cracked a couple of jokes and wished the outgoing cohort of students good luck.

“I have one important piece of advice I want to share, so important that it’s the only piece of advice I’m going to share today,” Cook said. “And that is this: Whatever you do, lead with your values.”

Cook and Apple have a unique relationship with the university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the nation’s capital. In 2020, each student and faculty member was given an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and Smart Folio tablet case. The program has since expanded to include MacBooks.

Gallaudet was the first university to participate in an Apple scholarship for disabled students of color. Students have landed jobs at the Apple Carnegie Library in the District’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, where the company also offers training and other programming for deaf people.

The relationship has allowed the campus in Northeast Washington to expand accessibility for students, offering more students the chance to excel academically and — eventually — cross the graduation stage, leaders say.

Feanny, who delivered the undergraduate commencement speech Friday, said she and university officials conceived the idea to invite Cook to this year’s ceremony. It was the campus’s first in-person graduation ceremony since 2019, and more than 200 mask-clad undergraduates accepted their diplomas.

“I thought it would be a great idea for him to come because Apple has contributed a lot to the Gallaudet University community,” Feanny said in an email. “The MacBook laptops and iPads provided to everyone allowed us to maintain a sense of connection and continue our working and learning relationships and activities despite the covid pandemic keeping us apart for 18 months.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades.
Kimberly Ávila Gonzalez, left, and Chandler Gloudeman wave their hands during the graduation ceremony for Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2022.

Elijah Henderson, who graduated Friday with a degree in communication studies, also touted some benefits of Apple products for deaf students. Among them are FaceTime, another feature that allows users to pair certain hearing aids with Apple devices through Bluetooth connection, and software that transcribes phone calls in real time. “It just gives deaf people the ability to communicate with ease,” Henderson said through an interpreter.

The partnership has also paid off in the classroom, said Thomas P. Horejes, associate provost for student success and academic quality. Eighty percent of full-time, first-time freshmen who entered Gallaudet in the fall of 2020 returned for their second year, the second-highest retention rate among a first-year cohort in a decade. The 2020 cohort is also performing better academically — 85 percent had “academic good standing,” compared with 78 percent of the 2019 cohort, Horejes wrote in an email.

“Technology plays a key role in supporting ‘extraordinary learning and academic excellence across the life span,'” Horejes said, referencing a tenant of the school’s strategic plan. “Apple has been instrumental in this effort.”

And at a university where about two-thirds of students are eligible for Pell Grants, federal aid reserved for students from low-income families, the introduction of Apple products means every student has access to the same hardware.

“Their ability to access technology and its resources is challenging and may present an academic inequity concern, which impacts the overall student success experience,” Horejes said. “This process helps ensure that all students get what they need regardless of their personal finances or with the support of their parents.”

Sarabeth Sullivan, who finished her Ph.D. in educational neuroscience in November but crossed the graduation stage Friday morning, said accessibility “is the standard of Gallaudet.” She grew up “more hard-of-hearing” and participated in what deaf people call “the hearing world.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades.
A graduating student signs “I Love You” during the graduation ceremony for Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2022.

Sullivan attended a traditional public school as a child, had friends who were not deaf and went to a hearing university for her undergraduate degree. But, she said, her experiences in the hearing world at times felt isolating.

“I realized I wanted to feel more like I didn’t have to beg for accessibility all the time or explain my needs all the time,” Sullivan said. At Gallaudet, however, her needs are instinctively met — and Apple has made life easier. The Sidecar feature, for example, allows Sullivan to double her screens, using one for taking notes or reading and another to communicate through video chat.

Gallaudet’s relationship with Apple began when its Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center — which houses elementary and secondary education programs — purchased iPads for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. The decision came “after various technological options were assessed to decide the best fit for bilingual learning,” Gallaudet President Roberta Cordano said in an open letter to Cook in 2019.

After the success at the Clerc Center, the partnership was expanded to the university campus. Cook, in his address, gave a nod to that relationship.

“As Apple works to design technology that is accessible to all, we are incredibly fortunate to have such innovative and committed partners,” Cook said. “It’s thanks in part to this community that Apple Maps now has a series of guides that help users identify deaf-owned and deaf-friendly businesses.”

Elsewhere in the District of Columbia, Catholic and George Washington University graduates are preparing for a weekend of commencement events. American University held its graduation ceremonies last weekend, and Howard University hosted its convocation May 7.

Georgetown University has events scheduled between May 20 and 22.