August 17, 2020

Hearing across the ocean

Fulbright scholar supports deaf education in Africa.

Joel Runnels, '21, is the type of person who turns adversities into opportunities to help others. As part of his doctoral studies in UND's Educational Foundations & Research program, he returned from his second visit to Ghana on his second Fulbright scholarship. The first trip was to conduct research for his dissertation on a 20th-century pioneer of deaf education in Africa. This time, Runnels co-developed an instructional video on sign language and deaf education for the University of Ghana.

As a child, Runnels had such a pronounced stutter that it was easier to communicate via sign language. “My own experience with disfluent speech is what motivated me to get into deaf education as well as American Sign Language,” Runnels said. “I found that at many stages in my life, I could sign a lot quicker than I could talk.”
Today, Runnels is grateful for his education from experts who helped improve his pronunciation and for his UND professors like Drs. Marcus Weaver-Hightower and Josh Hunter who have mentored him through his dissertation.
Runnels came to UND with extensive education and service history: A Peace Corps posting in Kenya, a bachelor’s degree in speech language and hearing sciences and a master’s degree in special education. Throughout his studies and research, Runnels has aimed to elevate those in whose shoes he once walked. 
“We owe it to others to expand access to equal opportunities. I am where I am today because those support services were there, so it’s not something that I would want to take for granted,” said Runnels.
Story adapted from UND's Leaders in Action series. Read and watch more about Joel at
Joel Runnels
Joel poses with students at the Oscar Romero School for the Deaf in Tubmanburg, Liberia, where he served as the school’s general manager from 2016 to 2017.
Image courtesy of Joel Runnels