Professor Ortiz is not your average college professor, so it makes sense that her best friend and colleague is a little unusual, too.
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Melba VÃ©lez Ortiz stands just 4-foot, 7-inches tall, dyes her hair in vibrant colors, and only has about 3% of her vision remaining. Born with retinitis pigmentosa, Melba’s vision has been declining for most of her 51 years on this earth, yet she refuses to let the condition rule her life.
One big aspect of Melba’s independence is Chad, or Professor Chad, as he’s known to her students at Grand Valley State University campus in Allendale, Michigan. Chad is an 8-year-old Labrador retriever who was assigned to her by Guide Dogs for the Blind when he was only a year old.
In the past seven years, Melba and Professor Chad have touched the lives of hundreds of students at the Frederik Meijer Honors College, where she teaches communications and he specializes in “Unconditional Love and Service.”
At first, Melba wasn’t sure about bringing Chad to class with her because she thought he’d be too distracting for the students.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. I am already fighting with every social media platform there is,'” she explained. “‘I’m already fighting with video games and God knows what else. No, I’m not bringing a cute puppy into my class.'”
She decided to give it a shot anyway, setting the dog up with a bed and chew toys to keep him busy while she taught. To her surprise, just having Chad in the room improved the whole classroom’s vibe.
“People fear public speaking more than they fear death,” Melba explained. “So to have Chad come on in, even sitting in the corner, I could feel the stress of the students go down.”
Students later confirmed that Professor Chad provides therapeutic benefits for them. During times of stress, they look forward to seeing him and getting a little puppy love in between classes. In fact, on the website Rate My Professor, where students share experiences with college-level teachers, Professor Chad earns all As!
“Fantastic!” one student wrote as a review. “Chef’s kiss. Professor Chad is by far the best professor I have ever had teaching me. If every professor was like Dr. Chad the world would be a better place.”
Melba also hopes that her vision impairment and Professor Chad’s presence in her life send an important message about inclusion and accommodation.
“My students learn so much from having someone like me in the classroom, active and doing her thing,” she said. “Especially the students who are sitting there with disabilities thinking, ‘Wow, she’s really out here doing the thing. Maybe I can too.’ And seeing how Chad and I interact, it fills them with hope and with care.”
Chad will be retiring from guide work next summer, but he will go live with one of Melba’s family members so she can bring home her new guide puppy. She never plans to lose touch with the animal who is more than just her colleague – he’s her “true friend.”
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