The Colgate Scene
July 2000
Table of contents
Living life well
by John D. Hubbard
Carolyn Ryan '84 is having some year.

     Named one of the Top 100 Irish Americans by Irish America Magazine, Ryan was also honored by the American Ireland Fund Young Associates, is the Irish American Heritage Irish Woman of the Year, received a proclamation as a Queens Woman of Achievement from council member Walter McCaffrey and she was recognized by New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi in 1999 during National Disabilities Month.

     Ryan, who is executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, has also hosted Hillary Clinton, planned the only public Mass for John Kennedy Jr. and delivered the eulogy, and has helped countless ordinary people help themselves.

     Actually, Carolyn Ryan is having some life.

     For a bit more than two years now she has headed up the resource center for Irish immigrants.

     "The Emerald Isle Immigration Center is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing information and assistance to new immigrants, regardless of ability to pay. We were founded by the Irish and Irish-American communities in 1988. Although the focus of our services is towards the Irish immigrant community, our doors are open to all and our service delivery is limited only by our ability to speak the language. The thrust of our services is providing information on immigration matters, including visa eligibility and citizenship, as well as employment and education matters. We also provide computer training and information seminars on issues of interest to our community."

     While she has been helping others help themselves, Ryan has learned something about herself. "What's great is that I've gotten to explore what it is to be Irish in America. What I've learned is that I'm not Irish at all. I'm American with Irish influences."

Profound realization
It isn't the first epiphany of Ryan's professional career. During a stint with the League for the Hard of Hearing as a fundraiser and special events planner, Carolyn, who was born with a profound hearing disability, came to a subtle but profound realization.

     "I learned I wasn't a hearing person who didn't hear well, but that I was a hearing-impaired person who heard very well. I work hard to communicate and help people communicate with me. Hearing loss is a limitation, but you have an obligation to try, because communication is a two-way street. Realizing that I make the most of what hearing I have gave me confidence to be up front about what I can and cannot do and not feel bad about my limitations."

     Carolyn Ryan grew up in a large, loving family. Mainstreamed throughout school, she pushed herself hard and did well. At Colgate, she found herself surrounded by "lots of other really smart overachievers. I didn't stand out."

     Ryan remembers the grimness of microeconomics with its graphs and the professor who lectured while writing on the board, a nightmare for Ryan, who relied on lip reading.

     "I should have been more proactive but I didn't know how," she said. "I graduated feeling rather ordinary."

     Ryan landed in commercial real estate following graduation before moving to the League for the Hard of Hearing.

     "Working at the league was the first opportunity I'd had to interact with other people who had hearing loss. I began to see that I'd done more with less hearing that the vast majority of people I was meeting." There was a certain awe for Ryan and what she had accomplished.

     "With so many experienced professionals giving me that kind of respect, I was able to look at my experience through their eyes and felt I had nothing to be ashamed of."

     Ryan came to "believe in my voice. It wasn't a perfect voice, but it was one of the best out there, given what I had to work with." Finding her voice also gave her the confidence to pursue her dream, which was then to attend law school.

     "I firmly believe that I would never have been successful at law school, or in anything else I've done since, if I had not had the opportunity to come to terms with myself as a person with hearing."

     The University of Pennsylvania was an adjustment, but Ryan settled in after a semester or two and flourished.

     Ryan focused on employment discrimination work while practicing law, first with a Baltimore-based firm in its Washington, D.C. office and then with a small boutique firm in New Jersey. The cases were varied. She was involved with African American federal law enforcement agents being passed over for promotion ("I was the naïve young white woman who had to convince wary federal agents to put their careers on the line for this case") and a golf course owner who wanted to know if it was legal to discriminate against gay workers.

     "What I liked about discrimination work, even from the management side, is that you could tell them to do the right thing and help them find a way. It was interesting to navigate that basic human relationship and help."

     However, the drudgery of the work wore on Ryan, who describes herself as more of a people person than a paper person. Swamped with briefs, she began to see the law as "something I did well but not something I did easily."

In the early '90s Carolyn's father Jim Ryan, the host of Good Day New York on Fox-TV in The City, began to research the roots of his family. It was a venture he embarked upon with some trepidation -- would the ancestral closet be full of skeletons and black sheep? Instead, a remarkable story emerged. The elder Ryan's father was one of 16 and the only child in the family to come to America. In uncovering the story, the Ryans (from County Cork -- other branches of the family hail from County May) put in motion an ongoing series of transatlantic family reunions.

     While Ryan was learning of her connections and Irish roots she took the job with the Emerald Isle Center.

     "I always manage to find a job in which I can explore some side of myself. There's something to being Irish American. It's its own subculture."

     The work has led to fantastic opportunities for Ryan. She sponsored a reception for the President on the South Lawn of the White House in recognition of his work on Northern Ireland and reciprocated by hosting Mrs. Clinton at the center's annual fundraising dance.

     When John Kennedy Jr. along with his wife and sister-in-law were lost, Ryan organized a Mass for the community.

     "We thought 400 people might come to say a prayer for the missing plane." The neighborhood Mass became the only public memorial service and Ryan's eulogy was seen live on national television. In the spirit of an Irish celebration, she spoke of how Kennedy had lived his life with grace and then she asked the congregation to stand and salute, hearkening back to the image of the little boy as his father's caisson rolled by.

     "I leaned later that John Kennedy was involved with kids with disabilities. I like to think he would have been proud someone who has overcome a disability spoke at his service."

     Overcome she has. "I think I have the intelligence and compassion to right wrongs. Helping others help themselves is one of the noblest of things we can do.

     "I'm proud," said Carolyn Ryan, "and I'm not done. I don't know what's next, but I am really enjoying this journey. I'll have a checkered resume when I'm done, but it will be a life well-lived."

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