ASUC executive VP hopes to inspire students, disabled or not

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs



Justin Christensen surveys the campus from Eshleman Hall.
Peg Skorpinski photo

22 August 2001 | When Justin Christensen contemplated college, he looked forward to a small, tight-knit school. An adviser persuaded him to apply to the Berkeley, but when his acceptance letter came, he tossed his aside.

He thought Berkeley was too big, impersonal and overwhelming. He didn’t think it could offer enough support, given the challenges he would face as a freshman, particularly as a profoundly hard-of-hearing student.

But his mother persuaded him to attend Cal Day, the campus’s annual spring open house. And as the Cal marching band paraded past him in the Valley Life Sciences building, the school spirit he witnessed felt contagious.

Today, Christensen is the second-ranking officer in the Associated Students of the University of California. Sitting in his office in Eshleman Hall, the junior represents more than 30,000 students, chairs the ASUC Senate meetings, and sits on the store operations board, which oversees the ASUC’s commercial activities. This fall, he will manage a staff of 50 students and control a personal office budget of $18,500.

“Cal has transformed me,” Christensen said.

And Christensen is transforming Berkeley.

Not only is he the first disabled ASUC executive officer in memory, but he’s also the new president of the Disabled Students Union. He has a grade-point average above 3.6, is a two-time residence hall president, and last year worked both as an ASUC senator and as a reporter for The Daily Californian, covering women’s soccer, gymnastics and baseball. He’ll also take 16 units of classes this semester.

It wasn’t until Christensen was three that he was diagnosed as profoundly deaf — possibly due to antibiotics administered for a case of pneumonia he came down with as an infant. There are various degrees of hearing loss: mild, moderate, severe, profound and totally deaf.

“I had no language,” Christensen said. “I basically started developing language at age three, not from birth. I took years of speech therapy and succeeded in mainstream schools. Now I speak clearly, use hearing aids, and read lips. I fool most people into thinking I have perfect hearing.”

From the ages of 3 to 6, Christensen attended the San Francisco Hearing and Speech Center. Every summer he returns, to visit and work with the kids who are excited by a “big guy with hearing aids,” he said.

He also tries to reassure parents that their hearing-impaired children can look forward to rewarding, successful lives. When he told one mother that he attends Berkeley, she began to cry. “They’re tears of joy,” she said.

After graduating from the private San Francisco University, Christensen was well prepared academically for Berkeley. Still, life at a big university required adjustments.

He quickly realized that he should sit right in the front of large lecture hall classes, to read lips. He also capitalized on discussion sessions with graduate student instructors and took advantage of professors’ office hours to talk one-on-one. And because he can’t read lips and write his own notes simultaneously, Christensen subscribes to note-taking services to make sure he doesn’t miss anything. He also studies in groups.

“I’ve gotten past the hard part, the Wheeler (Hall) lectures,” he said of the huge introductory classes that freshmen face.

That Berkeley is the birthplace of the disability rights movement is not lost on Christensen, who has spent innumerable hours at The Bancroft Library reading the histories of disability rights leader Ed Roberts and others for a history class project. “It really gave me a sense of perspective on how far the disabled community has come in 30 years,” he said.

Christensen looks forward to digging deeper into academics, when not presiding over the ASUC Senate or recruiting new members for the Disabled Students Union. He plans to go to graduate school after earning degrees in social work and possibly political science. He sees himself as a school principal or administrator some day.

His mother, Janet, says the most important lesson she and Justin’s father tried to impart was for Justin to set his own limits. “He hasn’t found many, has he?” she said.

Some of the tools Justin uses to deal with his deafness, such as lip-reading and closely watching people’s faces as they talk, likely have served him well in dealing with people, she said. “He’s extremely comfortable talking with anybody — anywhere, any time, any place.”

“I have a motto,” said Justin: “‘The ability to listen and understand is far more valuable than the ability to hear.’”


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