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August 6, 2007

First deaf MBA graduate from West Virginia University

From: WVU - Aug 6, 2007

CONTACT: Bonnie Anderson, College of Business and Economics 304-293-7812

(MEDIA: A photo is available for downloading at Media coverage of the graduation ceremony is encouraged.)

‘I’m just like them; I just can’t hear’
Deaf WVU business student changing perceptions

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When the students from West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics master’s degree programs sit on stage during their graduation ceremony Friday (Aug. 10) evening, they will patiently wait until their names are called so they may rise and receive their diploma.

One student on the stage will not hear his name read aloud or his family and friends cheering him on. But for that reason, his achievement is all the more remarkable.

Allen Winfree, who has been deaf since birth, will graduate with a master’s degree in business administration – making him the first such graduate in the history of the MBA program at West Virginia University. It’s an accomplishment that did not come easy, but one that he hopes will impact others for years to come.

Winfree, of Campbell’s Creek, W.Va., seems less interested in the recognition surrounding the accomplishment of his degree and more focused on securing employment and starting his career. Already the recipient of a bachelor’s degree in technology management and two associate degrees from other state institutions, he felt that a master’s degree was critical in making him an attractive candidate for employers.

“I have a lot to offer, but it is very hard to get employers to think about hiring deaf individuals,” Winfree said. “I know several deaf college graduates that are well qualified, but have yet to obtain jobs in their field. A graduate degree will provide me with another advantage, but I need an employer that will look beyond my disability and give me a fair chance in the workplace.”

He hopes to change the perceptions that business leaders may have toward the hearing impaired and demonstrate through his performance that deaf employees can contribute at a high level.

“I chose to attend WVU to earn my master’s because I knew that the faculty were great people who were willing to give anyone, especially handicapped individuals, a chance to get one step closer to breaking down the barriers that have prevented them from reaching their goals,” he said. “I feel that I may have impacted the University by showing professors and other students that I’m just like them – I just can’t hear.”

Bonnie Anderson, associate director of graduate programs in the College of Business and Economics, would agree. “Allen has been a delight to work with, and we’ve been so pleased with his involvement in the program,” she said. “He has experienced many of the same challenges that any student would have in an accelerated program like this, but I think we’ve all learned from the process, and he’s helped us better serve hearing-impaired students.”

The pursuit of a master’s degree in the intense program is challenging enough, but the difficult requirements were compounded for Winfree because of his hearing loss.


Seemingly routine tasks such as classroom participation, group discussions and working with financial data presented additional struggles for him.

“My biggest challenge was working together in a group,” he said. “It was very difficult for me to understand several people talking at once, so I had to find different ways to become an efficient member of the group.”

Although he is capable of speaking, sign language and reading lips, some situations required additional resources from the University’s Office of Disability Services. The department was able to provide him with transcribers who could enter classroom dialogue into a laptop computer system, a service that was not available at other institutions during his high school or undergraduate years.

Finance classes presented an additional challenge as the numbers and equations were not always easily represented through the laptop system. In those instances, he used the services of an interpreter sitting in the front of the class signing for him and he relied on classmates to help.

Even now as he looks for a job, he relies on his friends and WVU administrators to help him. He uses the phone numbers for Anderson and a close friend from the master’s program, Joe Mader, on job applications so perspective employers can reach him.

Through it all, Winfree has been interested in becoming an influence for other people with disabilities. In a statement of purpose submitted to gain entry into the master’s program, he described a desire to show others that there is no reason to allow their handicap from preventing them from achieving great things.

“I hope other hearing impaired students will be encouraged to obtain a professional degree whether it is a master’s, law, medical or pharmacy degree,” he wrote. “I would like to see more deaf people step up and set an example to others by showing that their disability is not something that should keep them from being what they want to be.

“I want to show other deaf people that through hard work and determination, they can achieve their dreams,” he said. “You can’t let your circumstances hold you down. We have to work harder to prove ourselves.”

Once his career is established, he would someday like to explore teaching at Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hearing-impaired students in Washington, D.C.

“When I reach the end of my career and look back at what I have accomplished, I would consider it a success if I can say that I have had some impact on other deaf people,” Winfree said. “It would make me proud to be in a position where they can come to me for help and guidance. I wouldn’t mind it at all if deaf people would ask me about obtaining a degree or landing a good job.”

Winfree will graduate with more than 80 other students receiving master’s degrees in business administration, professional accountancy, industrial relations and economics at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, in the WVU Mountainlair ballrooms.


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