Deaf business student turns small steps into big reward

5 – minute read

According to Ryan Sullivan (’23, business management), his biggest obstacle to succeeding in college has been group projects.


“Multiple people talk at the same time, and I couldn’t understand everyone,” the Florida Gulf Coast University senior says.


Despite such challenges, being born deaf hasn’t stopped Sullivan from succeeding academically, including being invited to join a national honor society. He credits his mom with helping him find success in mainstream schools in Darien, Illinois, a southwestern suburb of Chicago. “She taught me how to act and interact with hearing people.”

FGCU student Ryan Sullivan
At FGCU, Ryan Sullivan is one of 12 students classified as deaf or hard of hearing.

More than 11 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the 2022 U.S. Census. At FGCU, Sullivan is one of 12 students classified as deaf or hard of hearing, out of 1,500 students registered with Adaptive Services. The office provides accommodations and services to students, employees and guests with disabilities, so they can participate in classes and have equitable access to extracurricular activities, programs and events.


“We want students with disabilities to experience all that FGCU has to offer, similar to their peers without disabilities,” says Cori Bright-Kerrigan, director of Adaptive Services and the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the university.

Adaptive Services also arranges for interpreters in American Sign Language, the third most commonly used language in the U.S. Sullivan has a cochlear implant and can receive and process sounds and speak English. But the implant doesn’t restore full hearing, so he relies on ASL interpreters in many situations with hearing people.

“Having an interpreter makes it easier. Without one, I wouldn’t have understood as much,” he says. This is especially true of group projects and class discussions, where hearing people tend to speak over one another. “I became more independent through the years, but I like having the backup.”


Sullivan’s interpreters generally sit in front of the class, near to the instructor. Sullivan sits on the right side of the classroom to have an eyeline to both the interpreter and the faculty or his classmates during presentations. “All my professors have posted their lectures online so I use that as a reference for notes,” he says. “But I do write down things that the professor says [are] important or will be on an exam.”


Bright-Kerrigan says hearing students at FGCU can help their deaf and hard-of-hearing peers by partnering with faculty to create closed captioning materials. The volunteer opportunity allows students to earn service-learning credit.

FGCU student Ryan Sullivan

Sullivan’s advice to students of any ability level is to focus on manageable, specific actions that lead to reaching larger goals.


“If you want a degree in four years, look at each class and each assignment as a small goal along the way,” he says. “Get started with your homework and papers as soon as possible, and you’ll feel less stressed about deadlines and have more time to study.”


Sullivan uses short-term goals to minimize procrastination and increase productivity. The 29-year-old would know about being productive. He struggled when he first entered college and took a few years off to work full time in multiple maintenance jobs. He liked the work, but it gnawed at him that he hadn’t attained his educational goal, so he returned to FGCU.

In his final semester at FGCU, Sullivan has been accepted into Beta Gamma Sigma, the business honor society.


FGCU is among the top 5% of business programs worldwide eligible to host a chapter of the honor society, due to its accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. This past spring, Lutgert College of Business had 2,659 undergraduates and 589 graduate students; of those, 92 undergraduates and 43 graduate students qualified to join Beta Gamma Sigma.


Shelley Schlenk, an academic programs coordinator for the college, was impressed by Sullivan when she met him at the Beta Gamma Sigma induction ceremony.


“Only the top 10% of juniors and seniors and top 20% of master’s candidates are invited to join each year,” she says. “Ryan achieved that level of excellence despite an impairment that made every class even more difficult.”


Through his time in college, Sullivan continued to work as a maintenance technician in a senior care community. He even started his own business.


“I do not like being the employee as much as I want to be the boss,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to be a business major. I didn’t have spare time to join any clubs in college because I worked full time and took side jobs to grow my handyman business.”


With his business management degree and years of maintenance experience, Sullivan hopes to land a position as a maintenance or facility operations director while growing his handyman business. “I keep an open mind to different opportunities though,” he adds.

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