Photos by Cary Edmondson

Advocating for persons with disabilities: A life-long passion that happened by chance

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

Sitting in the library of the Smittcamp Alumni House for the interview, Janice Emerzian talks about her experiences being an advocate for people with disabilities– speaking, teaching, directing programs and being able to influence and mentor students. She wears a black and green printed sheath dress with shoes to match, and her hair is tied back tightly. She gives off an upbeat, confident air which is easily spread to you the moment you sit with her. She is warm, expressive and inviting, making the conversation flow easily.

Emerzian’s career in advocacy began at Fowler High School in 1969 when her husband, the principal of the school at the time, said that he could get her a job at the school working with “exceptional students.” She took the job thinking that she would be working with gifted students, and was surprised to find that her husband actually hired her to work with students with disabilities.

“Things sometimes come your way and you just have to go with the flow,” Emerzian thought as she stuck with the job, facing different challenges each day.

Towards the end of her time at Fowler High, Emerzian earned her Master’s in education and began teaching at the collegiate level, which she continues to do. With a bright smile and much enthusiasm she says, “I’ve taught here, at Fresno State, at UCLA and at Fresno Pacific. I love teaching! That’s where I really get my joy. After retiring, which I’m near doing, I want to continue to teach a class or two.”

After earning her Doctorate, Emerzian continued teaching and began working as the district director for the Disabled Students Programs and Services, which encompasses seven different colleges in the Valley. Emerzian watched with pride and fulfillment as the program grew from 300 students to over 5,000.

Emerzian meeting with a student

You look at Emerzian’s three-page resume and see she has a lot of experience and accomplishments, but you still wonder what exactly she does in her work, “What is a typical day like for you?”

Emerzian answers, “My typical day starts at 7 a.m. and ends around 7 p.m. I start by going through emails, I go to meetings…My office is on the Fresno City College campus, so if a student has a problem, I fix it. When there is a crisis, I find resolution,” she begins to count on her fingers, “I stay connected to students, presidents, chancellors, staff, faculty…hundreds of people! But I always make time for students — I have an open door policy…I hope that whoever replaces me when I retire has the strength and passion that I’ve had for our students.”

You figure that this strength must take root in her own college experience: A first generation college student who grew up only speaking Armenian, Emerzian went to college and had to figure things out for herself. While there was love and support from her family, they never truly understood the things that she faced — simultaneously loving college and being in a haze, trying to hold on to her Armenian roots. The experience was one in which she gained a lot of inner-strength and independence.

Emerzian begins to talk about how her career enables her to speak nationwide as an advocate saying, “My goal is to influence people’s understanding of what it means to have a disability. People with disabilities aren’t different; they just have one more hurdle than others.”

When Emerzian talks about her work, you can clearly see how passionate she is about what she does, and you wonder why. It was something she got tricked into by her husband, why continue with it after all these years? How can she be so passionate about something that she never intended on doing? You ask. Her demeanor changes instantly.

Looking down, you can also tell she’s looking within. She answers in a softer, quieter voice than she’s been using throughout your conversation, “My younger brother had a disability, and he ended up passing away from it. It happened by chance…it happened by chance and has turned into a life-long passion of mine,” she looks up with a soft smile on her face.