Apple CEO Tim Cook and Gallaudet University graduate Molly Feanny.

I Invited Tim Cook to Speak At My Graduation. He Gave Me This Advice

As a Deaf student, I know first-hand how important technology is to keeping us connected.

by Molly Feanny
Courtesy of Apple

A few weeks ago, I did something I never thought I’d do: I formally invited Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, to speak at my graduation ceremony at Gallaudet University, the only university in the world dedicated to deaf and hard of hearing students. Even when I was filming the signed invitation, I kept thinking, “This is happening. He’ll probably say no — because I’m sure he’s a very busy person — but it’s still worth a shot.” Doing that was a little outside my comfort zone, but so was my journey coming to Gallaudet.

Before coming here, I graduated from my hometown university in Victoria, BC, Canada, and I was at a turning point in my life, thinking about what I truly wanted to do. I was lucky to have an entirely signing family and a few friends with whom I could meet up and socialize with despite the communication barriers. Yet there was still an empty feeling deep inside me. I wished I could connect and interact with other deaf people like me. Despite not being sure what it would truly be like, I decided to take a shot and applied to Gallaudet.

Even when I was on the plane to Washington, D.C., to start studying at Gallaudet in August 2019, it still felt surreal. I was entering a whole different world. Soon enough, I met some new friends, peers and teachers who could have direct conversations with me, instead of having to use an interpreter or writing back and forth. I also adapted to a signing academic environment, and found I could be successful and thrive studying technology. Finally, I was where I needed to be, in a completely accessible environment where I felt accepted and fully included.

Unfortunately, when the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, I had to return home, back to where I was effectively cut off from the Deaf community and anyone else signing except for my family and a select few of my friends. Over the one and a half years I spent studying at Gallaudet online in Canada, I faced a lot of challenges, especially being far away from university and trying to complete classes. One thing made a huge difference, however: the fact that Gallaudet and Apple worked together to ensure that all the students, faculty and staff members had access to the tools they needed through laptops and iPads. Technology was critically important for staying connected with my teachers, friends and classmates, helping me work remotely — and most importantly — allowing me to stay on top of my studies.

Although remote learning was very challenging, it gave me plenty of time to think about what I truly missed and wanted to gain back when I could return to the Gallaudet campus: That feeling of being so connected to everything there, the feeling that you could do whatever you want when you set your mind to it. So when I finally stepped on the Gallaudet campus after a long time away, I was rejuvenated — and motivated to make the best out of the time I had left as a student. Anything was, once again, possible.

When I saw that Mr. Cook actually accepted my invitation to come and speak at our graduation ceremony this month, I was really surprised and amazed. I also realized that this was an opportunity for Gallaudet to express our gratitude to Mr. Cook and Apple for giving us access to remote learning and communication tools. Before coming to Gallaudet, I wasn’t sure how I would do, but now, despite everything that happened, I have a new degree in information technology, and the CEO of Apple spoke at my graduation ceremony. How wild is that?

Everyone’s story is different at Gallaudet. Thanks to the confidence I gained there, I hope to continue to promote global connections as a young Deaf woman studying and working abroad in STEM. During his visit to campus, I had the chance to ask Mr. Cook about the importance of diversity, how technology can be a tool for inclusivity and his advice for starting a career in tech.

Brian Stukes/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Do you have any advice for young people, and especially for Deaf and hard-of-hearing young people, who want to get their foot in the door and work in the tech industry?

Keep your curiosity. Curiosity should stay with you your entire lifetime. Keep asking the question “why,” and keep asking it over and over again until you get good answers. And when there isn't a good answer, that’s an indication that something needs to change.

How do you think technology can make the world more inclusive and accessible?

I think that part of what all of us are responsible for is to push humanity forward and make it more inclusive. I think technology has a key role in that because technology can amplify it. Technology empowers people. And so what we’ve always tried to do at Apple is to build accessibility into our technology from the start, and we’re going to keep doing that. Technology enables people to do things beyond themselves, to make a difference beyond what they could do otherwise. And so I see technology and accessibility one and the same.

What challenges did you face when first getting into the technology industry and how did you overcome them?

I still face challenges! We all have challenges, and so it’s more about how we deal with those challenges. I’ve always found that you should dissect things down to their smallest problems and put one step in front of the other — and it’s amazing what you can accomplish at the end. But challenges come at every level, whether you’re entering into a field or whether you’ve been in a field for a long period of time like me.

How do you think about the way accessibility can enhance diversity?

For us, we believe that the best products are made from the most diverse teams, and arguably you can’t have a very diverse team without having accessibility. And so we look at the intersection of these things — of diversity and accessibility — and because we do that, we make better products.

What is your favorite sport?

Football. I root for Auburn, which is my undergraduate school.

Coffee or tea?

Definitely coffee.

Are you planning on learning more sign language after being here today?

Yes, I’m inspired to do so.