As a professor with a Ph.D. in communication ethics, Melba Vélez-Ortiz prided herself on her excellent communications skills. But her partnership with her guide dog Chad taught her to communicate in entirely new ways.
Melba learned about the benefits of a guide dog after moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan to teach at Grand Valley State University. A counselor whose father received his guide dog from GDB helped Melba learn about the enhanced benefits a guide dog could provide, however that meant facing her longtime fear of dogs.
“The whole experience for me was life changing. So intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually my training at GDB was by far the most complete educational experience I’ve ever had because I had to overcome my fear of dogs and learn to connect with another species that doesn’t use speech to communicate.”
A tenured professor, Melba’s work is rooted in communication, culture, disability, and ethics. A bold and vocal bi-lingual communicator, Melba has created programs surrounding communication and culture, authored books, published articles in peer-reviewed journals, and presented papers at conferences in her field.
Driven by a philosophy developed by José Vasconcelos called “Happy Pessimism,” Melba accepts her blindness. She doesn’t expect things to be amazing, but she expects to work her hardest to make whatever change is possible. She credits Chad, for giving her the enhanced “confidence and freedom” she had been yearning for.
Melba identifies herself as “a person who opens doors” for others who work hard to achieve their goals, and she brings this enthusiasm to GDB’s Alumni Board as a member of the Board. “Conversations with Melba are always thought-provoking, uplifting, and exciting,” says Theresa Stern, GDB’s VP of Outreach, Admissions, and Alumni.
Melba says she is “eternally indebted to every single donor” at GDB and everyone in GDB’s entire community. “Guide Dogs for the Blind is not only wildly successful, which is a testament to how well it is run, it invests in programs that change people’s lives—and not just client’s lives but the lives of those who raise guide dog puppies, foster dogs, and volunteer on campus.” She keeps in touch with Chad’s puppy raisers and was particularly touched when they reached out to see how she and Chad were faring during the height of the pandemic. “Chad loves a challenge. He loves his job of getting me safely from point A to point B. He missed being on a busy college campus and my students missed seeing him.”
Now back in the classroom, Melba says Professor Chad is once again in his element. Chad earned his doctorate when Melba was awarded tenure. Both their photos hang in a display case that reads: Meet your professor. “When students see Chad’s photo, they know there’s a special partnership between a human and an animal that’s magical and they get to experience this magic,” says Melba. “He’s the master teacher here. I just walk beside him. We’ve got quite the partnership going. We’re a walking billboard for what’s possible, and I couldn’t ask for a bigger privilege.”
Pictured: Melba Vélez-Ortiz and Chad. Photos by Valerie Hendrickson and Amanda Pitts; University Communications/Grand Valley State University