After 18 years of counseling, supporting, interpreting, teaching, leading, advocating and yes, dancing, Sheryl Fernandez, NVC’s Dean of Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS), will officially retire on December 30, 2020, marking the end of a four-decade career serving people with disabilities via her passion for mental health and counseling.
DSPS is designed to ensure that all students with disabilities have equal access to all of the programs and services at Napa Valley College and serves about 600 students each semester.
“My tenure at NVC has many memories that I hold dear,” Fernandez said in a December goodbye email to the NVC faculty and staff. “At NVC, our small community demonstrates how we embrace our family and students. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful environment filled with terrific students that have taught me wonders.”
Fernandez’ supervisor, Assistant Superintendent/Vice President of Student Affairs Oscar De Haro, said, “Sheryl has been an inspiration to me from the beginning of my arrival at NVC as vice president for student affairs. Her meticulous strategy in problem-solving is one of embracing patience and unbiased consideration of the issue at hand. I admire Sheryl for her exemplary professionalism and will undoubtedly miss her guidance and shared knowledge.”
“Student success has been at the core of everything Sheryl has done in her tenure with Napa Valley College, first as a counselor and faculty member, and then as a dean,” said Dr. Ron Kraft, superintendent/president, Napa Valley College. “Her approach is always one of optimism and hope, finding solutions to challenges and ways to connect and bring people together.”
De Haro and Kraft joined the Board of Trustees at its virtual meeting on December 17 to formally recognize and thank Fernandez for her 18 years at NVC, the last 3.5 in the Dean position.
In a resolution of thanks, the Board noted that “Sheryl has shown unwavering dedication to the disability community as a whole, and specifically to the deaf community as a skilled interpreter. Sheryl’s expertise in serving students with disabilities as a counselor and administrator will be greatly missed, but her legacy will continue on with the DSPS department that she worked so diligently to create,” among many more accolades and observations.
That “unwavering dedication” has been a hallmark of Fernandez’ 18 years at NVC, but it has been present throughout her entire 40+ year career, including at nonprofits and the California Department of Rehabilitation, before beginning her work at NVC in 2002.
“I love that we are a small college,” she says. “We can work together in a more intimate way, which helps us know each other and our students better. I particularly love working with our students who have significant challenges. It is so rewarding to help them come to other side and have some resolution.”
During most of her career at NVC, Fernandez was a counselor with a mental health background, something she gave up to take on the dean job.
“I miss counseling,” she says. “People tend to think that the epitome of the college career is to be in the classroom. I found my dean duties to be very rewarding but I felt I had a greater impact with one-on-one counseling. It truly is my passion.”
That said, there are many things she says she is proud of as she contemplates leaving.
“I am most proud of my work to build capacity by bringing on staff and reconstructing the access technology center, which now provides better access for students with disabilities,” she said, referring to the blends of alternate media, such as text-to-speech or Braille, and assistive technology, such as smart pens, that help people with disabilities.
“I am proud of, with my staff, working with the academic side of house to get learning disabilities specialists and instructional support specialists under the DSPS umbrella, rather than separate. It’s more cohesive, in communications and processes, to have them under one roof. It has a direct positive impact on how students receive information and how well we are able to streamline student services to have better and more proactive wraparound services. Our students say they feel that we’re reaching out to them more, are in touch with them more.”
COVID has been a case in point for that idea.
“Our department was at the forefront with text messaging with our students,” Fernandez says. “We implemented it more than a year and a half ago. So when COVID happened, we were ready.”
That connection is especially important with the students she serves. “Our students don’t necessarily gravitate toward online learning,” she says. “It tends to exacerbate their disabilities, and this hit them hard. Society has taken off with technology. People use applications to accomplish everything. I am very cognizant of not losing site of the human touch.”
With her retirement date in sight, Fernandez says she and her partner, who is also retired, look forward to being an active presence in the lives of Fernandez’ goddaughter’s children, who live in Southern California. She plans to do volunteer work and also looks forward to, after the pandemic has passed, indulging in her favorite hobbies of dancing (West Coast swing, two-step and line dancing) and cycling.
Her dedication to the first was also memorialized in the Board’s Resolution, with a tongue-in-cheek “Whereas, many employees will remember Sheryl for her acting and dancing interest and ability, dressing up for Halloween, tap dancing, and having laughs with a many other present and past counselors and colleagues …”
For the remainder of her time at NVC, Fernandez will continue to be grateful for the experiences and relationships she has enjoyed.
“I love this department. I love Napa Valley College,” she says “And I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Oscar De Haro. He is triumphant in ushering his deans and staff in a way that elicits the best out of them.”
That certainly seems to be the case with Fernandez.