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The Community College of Philadelphia’s Center on Disability recently heard back from an alum in a big way. Entrepreneur Gunter Pfau, who graduated in 2002, made a donation of $100,000 to show appreciation for the help the center gave him.
Pfau, who is legally blind, is now CEO of activation and commerce technology company Stuzo. When he was entering college, he said, the center provided crucial resources — things like larger-print paperwork and extra time on exams.
In retrospect, those physical aids weren’t the only part of the COD he cherishes.
“What was as important,” Pfau told Billy Penn, “was the support structure that they provided outside of the core technical services.”
That could be as simple as encouraging words from a mentor or celebrations of small victories, like pizza parties for acing a test. Especially for students without robust support networks, Pfau said, small acts like that could mean a lot. Those moments of non-administrative support helped him embrace vulnerability, a crucial part of his worldview.
“I think that’s such a worthwhile way to spend the money that I donated,” Pfau said.
The COD, created in the 1970s — about 30 years before Pfau attended — now serves around 500 students a year, all with differing levels of frequency based on their needs, according to Wendy Kohler, the center’s director.
At Stuzo, Pfau oversees around 150 employees who help brick-and-mortar stores emulate the optimized recommendations of online shopping. It’s not hard to trace the work to the first CCP course that really captured his imagination. After consulting with Bridget McFadden, who still works at the college as a counselor, he took a course in economics.
For Pfau, that changed everything. “I fell in love with it,” he said. “I actually read the book, and I was like, ‘Wow, like if you apply yourself, this stuff is actually not that hard.’”
That helped boost his confidence, which served him as he worked with other memorable teachers. Like Jose Mason, a mathematics professor who taught differential calculus, and handed his classes answer sheets for the course’s homework.
“I was one of the only ones that called him out on the mistakes,” Pfau said. “It was a life lesson here for me that I still carry on, especially in entrepreneurship.” His takeaway? Nobody, including those in positions of authority, knows everything. Be open to correction when you’re in charge, and open to correcting those in lead roles when you’re not.
Other instructors also made impressions, like Mr. Hill, who taught management, or Mrs. Healy, who lectured in American history, as did COD staff, from then-director Fran DiRosa, to Jackie Williams, the aforementioned McFadden, and Christine Duffy.
“It’s kind of crazy, you know, 22 years or so later, that I still remember their names. That means something — I’m terrible with names,” Pfau said.
Going beyond ‘accommodation’ to inclusion
A lot has changed at CCP’s Center on Disability since Pfau attended.
When Kohler came aboard as director almost a decade ago, colleges were in the midst of updating facilities to adhere to new policy changes regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Originally adopted in 1990, amendments made to the act in 2008 led to civil suits in 2012 that questioned what it meant to provide for disabled people.
“Instead of really focusing on what the ADA was intended to do, which was to open doors for individuals with disabilities and provide full access, it turned into people having to really prove they had disabilities,” Kohler said. “It seemed like so much was set up to exclude or create a barrier between individuals with disabilities in the services they were intended to have.”
From this legal maelstrom, Kohler and her team have learned to move differently.
The framework of accommodation — things like the larger print materials and extra testing time provided for Pfau — is still a practical part of the center’s work. But there’s acknowledgement that these things can effectively silo disabled students. Today, the aim of true inclusion is central to the COD.
“The old model perpetuated that little yellow school bus concept,” said Kohler, when students with disabilities were “tucked away in the basement, as opposed to sitting side by side with their classmates.”
Now the model has flipped, and the COD tries to answer a different question: “What are we doing to ensure that any student feels welcome in every environment at the college?”
Even with the changes that have taken place, most people still see the center as “dispensing accommodations,” but Kohelr and staff are trying to change that view.
“We talk with faculty a lot about; ‘What are the essential learning outcomes in your class? … Can this student fulfill it if they do X, Y, and Z?’” Kohler explained, adding, “Students with disabilities shouldn’t just be getting their support within the center.”
Using ‘team chemistry’ to turn differences into strengths
When Pfau left CCP to attend Temple, he was determined to avoid extra accommodations.
“In order for me to be able to effectively compete in the marketplace — either as an entrepreneur or be very successful in an enterprise setting — I would have to not take advantage of those types of services,” he said. “That mentality or that way of thinking sort of flies in the face of vulnerability.”
Pfau has a term for the way work gets done at Stuzo. It’s “team chemistry,” and it recalls the lessons learned at CCP, whether in the Center on Disability or Professor Mason’s calculus course.
The goal of team chemistry, he said, is to “recognize the things that somebody can run circles around somebody else on, and to recognize the things that may be harder for one person than another” — but not to single anyone out.
He compared the process to “The Last Dance,” a 2020 documentary on the amazingly successful basketball team the Chicago Bulls built around Michael Jordan in the ’90s — which included eccentric forward Dennis Rodman.
“He was the one that had a unique personality and all types of antics, but there’s no way they would have won the championships without him,” Pfau said. “Rodman had a ton of weaknesses. But he rebounded like a champ, right?”
Pfau’s six-figure gift to the place he got started will make a big difference in helping other students achieve similar success, said COD director Kohler.
“It says, ‘I see you, I value you. I recognize you. You matter. You are worth investing in,’” Kohler said. “Our goal is to do that donation justice and good service.”