Whatcom Cares: Kerri Holferty helps Whatcom Community College students overcome obstacles

More students with disabilities are staying school at Whatcom Community College, thanks to the efforts of an administrator who doesn’t just open doors for them, but also helps them understand that the door isn’t an obstacle.

Coworkers at WCC who nominated Kerri Holferty, associate director of the Office of Access and Disability Services, said they admire her passion and commitment. Holferty counsels approximately 300 WCC students with a range of physical, emotional and other disabilities — blind and visually impaired, deaf and hard of hearing, people with Asperger’s, ADHD, and those who use wheelchairs.

“I level the playing field for students with disabilities,” said Holferty, who’s fluent in American Sign Language and has a special love for deaf and hard of hearing people.

“Being an interpreter, you have one foot in the hearing community and one in the deaf,” she said. “It’s hard to explain. You could equate it to going to a different country and learning the language and the culture.”

In addition to helping disabled students adapt to college life, she teaches Adult Basic Education and College Success courses. She helps provide technical assistance for blind and visually impaired students or testing accommodations for students with attention deficit disorder, and she makes sure the college is in compliance with state and federal laws regarding people with disabilities.

Advocating for students with disabilities is her mission at WCC — but she’s not a fixer.

“I really try to help them be self-advocates,” she said.

Tawny Townsend, director of student access and first year experience, said Holferty’s greatest asset is that she’s a good listener.

“It’s hard to summarize someone like Kerri, who’s incredibly dynamic and adaptable,” Townsend said. “Her personality draws people in. She really helps people understand the resources available to them. That’s important for all students, but especially for students who are overcoming obstacles. She truly models inclusion.”

Townsend said Holferty meets students “where they are at,” many of them fresh out of high school, and others who are returning to college after 20 years. Townsend said Holferty helps people to achieve their goals on their own, focusing on “life skills,” helping students take charge of their own lives.

“It’s not just our campus that benefits from that, it’s our whole community,” Townsend said.

“I kind of feel like a cheerleader,” said Holferty, who’s been at WCC for 20 years, and has a master’s degree in education from Western Washington University. Raised in Surrey, B.C., she moved to Bellingham some 23 years ago from Portland, Ore.

“As I started meeting students with other disabilities, it was wonderful to see them meet their goals and match their peers. And see that they aren’t that different from anyone else,” Holferty said.