Thursday, May 28, 2009

SFSU administrator becomes first blind person to be named an American Council on Education Fellow

From the Bay Area Reporter:

Over the 44-year lifetime of the American Council on Education's fellows program, San Francisco State University has never nominated one of its own for the prestigious leadership training for college administrators. That is, until now.

Eugene Chelberg, (pictured) a gay man who is SF State's associate vice president for student affairs, not only is the first person from the campus to apply and be selected for a fellowship, he is also believed to be the first blind person accepted to the program.

"What we can emphatically say is he is the first blind person to be a fellow. We don't know if others have applied," said Sharon A. McDade, director of the Washington, D.C.-based program.

The 41-year-old Chelberg started working at SF State in July 2001 as its director of disability programs and resource center (a job he still holds). One of his first achievements was to help plan a conference for queer disabled students from around the country. Today, he oversees an $11 million budget, a staff of 150 people, and the needs of 800 students per semester with various disabilities on campus.

His acceptance to the fellows program is not only a privilege, he said, but lays the foundation for other disabled people to follow in his footsteps.

"I am breaking new ground for blind people in higher education," said Chelberg. "My hope is that the work I do will not be the first and only. I hope there will be generations to come and that I am clearing the path for others."

He applied for a fellowship because he has aspirations to one day be a vice president or dean of a college. As for a presidency position, he would not rule it out. In the fall he will be placed at another university to work alongside its top executives, and in the spring of 2010, he will return to SF State to shadow its president.

"It's really exciting in that it gives me access to a whole network of academics and higher education administrators taking on leadership positions," said Chelberg, who uses a 28-month-old guide dog named Paddy to help him navigate around campus. "I love higher education. It plays a very important role in our society. It is a place I see myself taking on more and more leadership responsibilities to ensure students have access to higher education."

Other fellows have likely been LGBT people, though the program does not keep records on applicants' sexual orientation, said McDade. In addition to his on the job performance, McDade said Chelberg's disability also played a factor in his being selected to the program.

Due to the fact that few college administrators are blind, Chelberg brings an entirely rare and unique experience to share with the 37 other fellows selected for the program this year, she said.

"As to whether his sightedness was a factor in his being accepted as a fellow, once we establish the applicant has met the requirements of the program, we do look at issues of diversity as they relate to what they can bring in terms of a learning opportunity to other fellows," said McDade, who took part in interviewing Chelberg for the program. "What impressed us is actually an answer to what impresses us about any of the people we select; they show they have had interesting and substantial leadership experiences and they have shown they can be a leader and can make leadership contributions."

The fellows program's focus is to prepare rising leaders on college campuses to eventually serve as senior executives and presidents of higher learning institutions. SF State President Robert Corrigan said he signed off on Chelberg applying for the program because of the "great potential" he has shown to one day be a campus president himself.

"There are hundreds of university and college presidents who have gone through the program, so when Gene expressed an interest I was pleased to respond," said Corrigan. "Gene, in my opinion, will do very, very well."

During his nearly 21-year tenure at SF State, Corrigan said that Chelberg was the first person to broach with him the subject of seeking the council's fellowship. He said Chelberg, irrespective of his being blind, deserves to be accepted into the program.

"Gene has great potential. This would do him and the university quite a bit of good," he said. "I don't think, with Chelberg, we should focus on his disability. Regardless of his disability, he is a first-rate choice for this."

Chelberg has been blind since the age of 13 due to a congenital birth defect that left him with detached retinas in his eyes.

"Thirteen was one hell of a year. That was when I also realized I was gay," said Chelberg, who officially came out to his parents at age 19. "My identity as a gay person developed first. It was more natural to me and I had more control over it. Claiming it was a more liberating thing."

His blindness took longer to accept.

"My blindness is more external; people have their own ideas of it. I didn't know how to define it until I came out," he said. "It was then I realized I can claim my blindness like being gay and develop community and identity around it in the same way as with the gay community."

The Minnesota native co-founded the first-ever disabled student cultural center at the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1991. The project grew out of another graduate student's research into life for disabled students on campus.

"We were the first in the country and the world," said Chelberg, who helped run focus groups for the report. "We asked what has been the experience of the disabled student community on campus and they all said, what community?"

In his day-to-day interactions, Chelberg is more defined by his disability than his being a gay man. People are more apt to focus on his being blind and often miss the fact he is not straight, he said.

"A lot of individuals have a difficult time imagining what it is like to be blind. They get stuck right there. It is pretty true in the gay community, too," he said. "In Minneapolis the bouncer or patrons thought I was lost at the gay bar. I would have to explain that, 'No, I am looking to be here.' Most people define me first as being a blind person, not as gay."

Chelberg married his husband, David Meissner, who sings with the San Francisco Symphony, on their eighth anniversary, September 21, last fall, becoming part of the first group of same-sex couples to legally wed in California. The couple had their ceremony inside the Art Deco-designed Metropolitan Club; it is thought to have been the first gay wedding to take place at the all-women's club on Sutter Street.

"It was something I never ever imagined in my life I would get to do. It was an amazing experience," recalled Chelberg.

When he is out with his husband, Chelberg said people often mistake him for his aide rather than his partner.

"People don't make the connection that we are gay and together," said Chelberg. "They just see a blind man with a dog on his left hand and a bald guy on his right hand."