15 Dec UND doctoral student and Minneapolis-area native Joel Runnels preparing for second Fulbright experience in Ghana
Runnels to use his new award to travel to Ghana to research ‘the Father of Deaf Education in Africa’
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Dr. Andrew Foster may not be a familiar name to most Americans, but across much of Africa, the Deaf Community, sign language students and teachers of the deaf know of him. Foster was a deaf African American missionary educator who, after moving from the U.S. to Ghana in 1957, established 32 schools for the deaf across 13 African nations, effectively laying the foundation (which remains intact to this day) of the continent’s deaf education and sign language instruction programs.
Now, Joel Runnels, a doctoral candidate at the University of North Dakota, has been selected for a Fulbright Specialist Award to further his research into and dissertation about Foster.
Fulbright is the flagship educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government, and the Fulbright Specialist Program sends U.S. faculty, graduate students and professionals to serve as expert consultants at academic institutions abroad.
In Runnels’ case, the Fulbright Specialist Award will be co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the University of Ghana, where Runnels will travel in the spring. At the University of Ghana, Runnels will work with a deaf Ghanian counterpart to design a multi-media presentation on the subject of Runnels’ research: “Dr. Andrew Foster, Ghana and the Roots of Deaf Education in Africa.”
“Promoting mutual benefit through educational exchange, the University of Ghana will use our co-created resource material for their Ghanian Sign Language Program,” Runnels said.
Andrew Foster’s alma mater, Gallaudet University in Washington, has honored him as the Father of Deaf Education in Africa. But unlike his more famous contemporaries from the Civil Rights era in the United States, Foster and his work remain little known here — a situation that might change, Runnels hopes, as he and other scholars call more attention to successful role models of color with disabilities.
A Minneapolis-area native and former U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Runnels also is the winner of a previous Fulbright U.S. Graduate Student Program award, which took him to Ghana in 2017-18. He is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and conversational in Swahili, skills that he hopes will help him work with Somali people in the upper Midwest, many of whom speak Swahili.
“Fulbright winners join an international coalition of scholars who work together to transform the world by setting joint priorities and seeking out innovative solutions,” said Yee Han Chu, academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator at UND.
“Joel has demonstrated the training and expertise to make this happen. His adaptability, leadership, community engagement and global vision align perfectly with the Fulbright mission.”
Said Runnels about his graduate work in Educational Foundations & Research at UND: “A few years ago, I undertook a nationwide search to identify a Ph.D. program which would be a right fit for me. After much research, I determined the academic expertise and experience on offer at UND best suited this dissertation.
“I haven’t been disappointed, as EFR mentors (especially Drs. Marcus Weaver-Hightower, Cheryl Hunter and Robert Stupnisky) have stepped up to honor and empower the success of my doctoral journey at UND, which the Fulbright Specialist Program will help to complete.”