Video: A Deaf Pioneer From Indonesia

Close up of a young man of southeast Asian origin wearing graduation cap and gown and sitting in forested setting. He wears a neutral expression.
Signing in ASL, Cristophorus Budidharma describes his journey from Indonesia to Rochester, New York to further his education in science and mathematics.

As a child growing up in Indonesia where accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing children is lacking, Cristophorus Budidharma once believed that subjects such as science and math were out of reach for him. It wasn't until later, when he learned that many deaf and hard of hearing people succeed in the STEM fields, that he broke with these beliefs and resolved to learn English, math and science for himself as an undergraduate student at Rochester Institute of Technology in the United States. And he's not stopping there.

Play the captioned video to learn how Cristo advocated for his right to a STEM education, his early taste of international exchange in the U.S., and the dream that motivates him to earn his PhD.

Learn more about Cristophorus on his GoFundMe page.

Video Transcript

Hi! My name is Cristo. I am currently in Rochester, New York in the United States. It’s cold here right now, whew!

Anyway, my name is Cristophorus Budidharma, and I am from Indonesia. I’m Deaf and I use sign language. The reason why I moved to the U.S. to study is because…well, let me go back to the beginning of the story and explain how I got to where I am today.

I am a part of the Deaf Community in Indonesia. I grew up using oral communication and did not use sign language because I was a Deaf child of hearing parents. In fact, I am the only Deaf person in my entire family.

As I got older, around 4th grade, I started thinking about what interested me, and realized I really enjoyed science. I especially enjoyed learning about the medical field and anatomy.

I went to my parents and asked them if a Deaf person could become a doctor, and their answer was that it was impossible, and that I had no chance of becoming a doctor due to my deafness. Everyone I asked had the same response: “It is impossible for you to become a doctor.” I began to believe this because I had never seen a Deaf physician in Indonesia before. So, this was the assumption that I had throughout my life: Deaf people can’t become doctors.

Once I got to high school, I decided to participate in an exchange program called IULX (Indonesia-US Leadership Exchange) in 2012. So, I flew to the United States for a one-month exchange. I was the only deaf person involved in this exchange program. During this exchange I learned a great deal about the environment, leadership, and how to develop a project. We also camped while we were there.

I had NO interpreter while participating in this program. I had to rely upon lipreading the hearing, Indonesian staff throughout this experience. In order to communicate with other hearing people involved in the program and U.S. English speakers who couldn’t speak my Indonesian language, I relied upon the use of an iPad, which is also what I had been using to communicate with the Indonesian staff during the month-long exchange.

During this program, I became very involved in learning about art and thought that maybe art was what I was meant to do. 

While I was in the U.S., someone unexpectedly reached out to me and offered me a scholarship to complete a bachelor’s degree at Gallaudet University. I was surprised that they wanted me to attend their university.

Anyway, I returned to Indonesia from the U.S. after a month and began to work on my project related to the arts. The exchange program had provided me with seed money of $75.00 to start this project, and then I worked from June to November to grow that $75.00 into $1000.00 by seeking out sponsors and support for my project.

Once that was completed and I was set to graduate from high school, I wanted to pursue the scholarship offer that had been offered to me by Gallaudet University with a major in art. I went through the application process, which included taking the required SAT exam. Unfortunately, I failed the SAT exam, so I wasn’t granted acceptance to Gallaudet. After two years of waiting to take advantage of the scholarship offer, it turned out it wasn’t meant to be.

It was at that point that I decided to enter a two-year university in Indonesia. I started by taking English language and education courses.  I figured that at the very least these courses would help improve my English literacy skills. My difficulties with the English language were what had caused my SAT scores to be so low. My thought was that taking these courses might improve my chances at a better score on the English portion of the SATs.  So, I was accepted into the university’s education program which taught me English and how to teach.

However, at some point during the second semester, and I am not sure why, I had this feeling that maybe I should do a Google search asking, “Are there any Deaf physicians in the world?” I was shocked to find out that there were several Deaf physicians in the United States! I couldn’t believe it! After all these years believing that deaf people couldn’t become doctors, and to realize that all along everything I had been told about this was untrue, was quite a blow! Clearly, Deaf people were able to learn and succeed in science-related fields.

So, I approached my parents, aunt and uncle, and even my friends and they were all skeptical. This really upset me! I wished that I had been raised being told by my family that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but that hadn’t happened.

So, I decided to fight for what I really wanted and contacted my university. I asked that I be allowed to change my major from Education to Science. This was a fight that I had decided to take on. This would be difficult because it was the policy of the university not to allow changes of major from Education to Science due to my lack of background in science and the English language while I was in high school. I had previously had NO exposure to physics, chemistry, biology or any other types of science as a high school student.

That being said, I BELIEVED I could do it!

Despite my desire to change majors, everyone told me I couldn’t do it. My parents, aunt, uncle, and many others discouraged me from making this change.  I was nearly ready to give up when I decided to compose an email describing my experiences growing up and expressing my desires and rationale for why I wanted to pursue the sciences. I figured this was my last chance.   I sent the email to the chair of the science department.

The chair of the science department decided we should have a meeting to discuss what I should do.  This meeting included me, my parents, the chair of the education department and the chair of the science department.

During the meeting, the chair of the science department said they would be willing to give me a semester to see how I did while studying biology. Then, if I was successful, I would be allowed to change my major from education to biology, but if not, I would not be allowed to change my major. However, the chair of the education department said that they were unwilling to sign off on this change and were skeptical of my ability to succeed in the sciences. My parents seemed to agree with the education department.

The chair of the science department looked at me and said, “You should tell your parents and the education department to give you a chance!” These words inspired me and made me feel supported. I must give the chair of the science department credit for believing in me.

So, ultimately, I was given the go-ahead to change my major for one semester from Education to Science. My parents, aunt and uncle were VERY concerned that I would fail. But despite their concerns, I decided I was going to give this my best shot.

Science courses were especially challenging because not only did I have to understand the content in English, I also had to understand the science-specific terminology which was yet another level of complexity. So, this process was doubly challenging for me, but I did my best!

And after one semester in the sciences, I passed biology with a B! So that was incredible! All along I knew I could’ve been successful in the sciences and here we were!

So, I showed these results to my parents, the chair of the science department and the chair of the education department, and they realized that they’d been completely wrong about my ability to succeed. The chairperson of the science department was so proud of me that I was given a chance to take a chemistry class the following semester. I did well in chemistry class, earning an A! Ultimately, I ended up graduating with an AAS degree in Biology.

Next, I started searching for scholarships, which was a really difficult process. I didn’t know where I wanted to go next. Just when I was about to give up, I was contacted by a person I’d met during the exchange program in high school.  This person recommended that I try RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). I had never heard of RIT before. A quick internet search showed me that RIT had a deaf program, which sounded like it was a similar concept to Gallaudet.  I applied to RIT, which also offered a full scholarship to international students, and part of that process was to take the ACT exam. I took the exam and passed it. Then I waited to hear if my application had been accepted. I was hoping that it would be! 

My parents, aunt and uncle were still skeptical, saying they doubted I would be accepted into RIT, because they felt that it would be much too rigorous and difficult for me compared to the science courses I had previously taken.

After sending in the application and going through the waiting process, my mom woke me up one morning telling me I had an unread email on my iPhone from the RIT admissions office.  Both of us were very nervous to open the email and see what it said. As I looked over the email, the words, “Congratulations! You have been accepted into RIT!!” jumped out at me. I was SO excited!

My family was dumbfounded!  They couldn’t believe I had been accepted! Despite all my successes, my aunt was STILL skeptical of my ability to succeed at RIT saying that the coursework would be much harder and more demanding than I had previously experienced.

Arriving at RIT in the United States was a study in culture shock. Everything was very different from Indonesia. In addition to all the other things I was learning, I was also learning ASL. Now, my fluency in ASL is pretty good, but when I first arrived it was awkward at best. Add to that the fact that I had NEVER signed before due to my oral upbringing and it was a time of much growth for me linguistically. I was learning English, ASL and science terminology all at the same time! So, I had the extra workload of learning two languages while also studying my coursework – quite a challenge!

I earned a 4.0 GPA during my first semester at RIT. I KNEW I could do it!  Here was proof!

I sent my course grades to my family, and my parents and aunt were SO proud of me! At that point my aunt had to eat her words. I continued my studies and graduated after three years with a BS in biomedical sciences, magna cum laude. I couldn’t be more proud of myself. 

After all that, I decided I needed more; that a bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough. Currently, I am looking for scholarships for a master’s or Ph.D. degree program in anatomy which is my passion. This search is ongoing though I have been accepted to one program in Buffalo, New York at D’Youville College. I am not certain if this is the right program for me, so I am still looking for other options while also looking for scholarships. I hope I will be able to keep going with my studies.

The reason why I want to pursue a Ph.D. is to show the Indonesian people and the Indonesian government that they need to change their perspectives about the potential and capabilities of Deaf people. We need to de-stigmatize deafness and show others that the prevailing view of Deaf people is wrong. The current belief is that Deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals have no capability to achieve in STEM courses or the sciences which is clearly untrue.

I want to prove them wrong. 

Getting my Ph.D. would be further proof showing that Deaf people can achieve at high levels in the sciences. My goal is to have the Indonesian government establish a program for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people who wish to enter STEM and science-focused programs in ANY university throughout Indonesia. Then, once they graduate with bachelor’s degrees, they would be eligible to apply to a master’s degree program anywhere they like – even in another country! Then they could become scientists, engineers, mathematicians, engineers, chemists, biologists or even doctors. 

My goal is that obtaining my Ph.D. will be a means to this end.  Here’s hoping! Thanks for letting me share my story. Goodbye!