Dr. Fawn Ngo with her student Gary Ernneus

USFSM teacher, student collaboration opens door to understanding

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: November 21, 2017

SARASOTA, Fla. (Nov. 21, 2017) – A USF Sarasota-Manatee professor is using a unique strategy to help a student with visual impairment understand statistics, and she owes the breakthrough to her daughter.

Dr. Fawn Ngo, an associate professor of criminology, says she was growing concerned as one of her students, Gary Ernneus, started falling behind. Ernneus, studying for a master’s degree in criminal justice, isn’t just any student. He’s visually impaired, the result of a brutal attack while working as a corrections officer near Miami nine years ago.

Making his rounds one afternoon at the Metrowest Detention Center, an inmate tossed hot liquid into his face and punched him. Ernneus recovered and rinsed his eyes, but the liquid scarred his corneas, leaving him blind and turning his world upside down.

Gradually, he learned to live independently, walk with a cane and use software that reads computer text. Now 42, Ernneus is a student at USF Sarasota-Manatee and owns a vending-machine supply company.

All was going well in his studies until Dr. Ngo’s statistics course, which pairs mathematical symbols and equations with large volumes of numerical data. The course left him frustrated and worried as he started falling behind other students.

USFSM teacher, student collaboration opens door to understanding

Dr. Ngo helps Gary feel mathematical symbols.

Dr. Ngo, was equally stymied until she remembered something her 12-year-old daughter said about the beach and drawing pictures in the sand that got her considering a possible solution.

With Ernneus in her office a few days later, she poured table salt onto a tray and smoothed it out.

One by one, she drew mathematical symbols into the salt, then stepped aside to allow Ernneus to feel them. Describing their purpose and allowing him to feel-visualize the symbols opened the door to his understanding them. For several weeks since, the two have worked this way, with Dr. Ngo making time to tutor Ernneus.

With her help, he’s been able to gradually catch up to the class, and now it looks like he’ll finish on time. Regardless, Dr. Ngo says she’ll continue to work with Ernneus until he passes – even if that means working through the holidays and into the spring term.

“The thing about Gary is he never gives up,” she said. “And if he doesn’t give up then how can I give up? I’m happy that he’s getting it now. It’s amazing what he has learned already. He truly is an inspiration.”

For Ernneus, being able to touch the symbols made all the difference: “It was like a light turned on in my head, ‘Ah, that’s what she’s talking about,’” he said.

He admits he has a ways to go, but his confidence is growing.

He said he doesn’t let his disability define him. That same spirit helped him through his undergraduate years at USFSM, and now it’s urging him to finish his master’s degree as well. He’s even thinking ahead, perhaps applying to USF’s doctoral program in Tampa.

“I’d like to teach someday,” he said. “I’d like to teach at the college level. I like learning and I like the college environment. College has made a big difference in my life, and I’d like to help others succeed as well.”

To learn more about USF Sarasota-Manatee’s criminology program, visit usfsm.edu/programs/criminology.

Read more news stories below or view as a list