This story is reprinted from Fresno State Magazineas written by Melissa Tav, for the Summer 2022 edition.

Erin Ruiz and Dianna Clayton have attended hundreds of hours of physical therapy classes, clinics and even a complex cadaver and anatomy lab during the past three years — but they’re not the ones who just graduated with a doctoral degree. That would be Qiaofei Catherine Obrero, who, in May, became the first Deaf graduate in the program’s history.

As two of her American Sign Language interpreters, Ruiz and Clayton were by Obrero’s side through every lecture, evaluation, shoulder rotation and knee bend en route to her doctoral of physical therapy degree.

“We have all been on this doctoral journey together,” Obrero says. “I don’t think I would have had the confidence or growth I have now had it not been for the immense support of my interpreters and the many doors they opened for me.”

Throughout the three-year doctoral program, Ruiz and Clayton worked directly with Obrero for six to nine hours most days, and even on occasional weekends. They say it was inspiring to see what Obrero accomplished at the University.

Dianna Calyton“It’s been really special to witness how much Qiaofei has grown from our initial meeting when she first started at Fresno State to where she is now,” Clayton says. “As an interpreter, you get to see a lot of moments that others don’t, from their victories to their disappointments. With Qiaofei, I saw her through all of these moments and watched how much she flourished in the field.”


Redefining health care

Born in the Zhejiang Province of China, Obrero was adopted as a toddler by Leo and Patty Obrero, who raised her and her siblings in Reedley. At a young age, Qiaofei (pronounced Ch-yow-fay) Obrero experienced hearing loss that got progressively worse over time, ultimately leading to complete deafness in one ear and severe deafness in the other.

Throughout her life, Obrero relied on hearing aids and a cochlear implant to hear, and lip reading and visual cues to communicate. She did not learn American Sign Language until she attended community college.

Despite her challenges, Obrero aspired toward a career in health care. As a child, she recalls her parents encouraging words and gentle reminders that a career in health care was possible, but might not come easy.



Obrero experienced this firsthand and remembers hospital visits where interpreters were either inaccessible or difficult to find. As the patient, she realized early on how important communication and language access in the medical field truly is.

“My drive to pursue a career in physical therapy comes from the natural belief that no person should have to walk into a doctor’s office and wonder if they will have issues with communication or language access,” Obrero says. “After all, everyone deserves to understand their own health needs.”

While observing hours at a local physical therapy clinic, Obrero had the opportunity to work with a Deaf child. Although they were years apart, their ability to communicate via sign language forged a momentary bond between them that no one else understood. For Obrero, that life-changing moment — as well as the ability to work with patients one on one in a close, intimate setting — affirmed her passion for the physical therapy profession.

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All photos courtesy of Fresno State / Cary Edmondson.