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U.Va. Student Finding Cultural Identity In Deafness And Teaching Others

May 6, 2002-- Rebecca Leigh Smith: University of Virginia Echols Scholar, Dean’s List, Phi Beta Kappa, Psychology Distinguished Major, research assistant, active volunteer, Judiciary Committee representative, tutor, skilled photographer. Also, has strong computer knowledge, is proficient in Spanish and German and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

Becca Smith, who has been deaf since birth, plans to put her wide-ranging, hard-won knowledge to work with a career teaching deaf children. Before she enters a graduate program in deaf education in the fall, she’ll work at a camp for deaf-blind children, then make a cross-country driving-and-camping trip to Alaska.

"Just watching her makes me tired," a former roommate said.

One of the motivating forces in Smith’s many accomplishments has been her deafness. It has also given her a strong identity as part of a culture.

At times the path wasn’t easy. Growing up near Philadelphia, she was the only deaf student in her public high school. She is naturally outgoing, but school life could be painful socially. She avoided the lunchroom, ate with a teacher. "I focused on homework and sports. I did well academically," she recalled with typical modesty.

U.Va. was one of several colleges Smith applied to, but finding other deaf students here, she fell in love with the place and turned down a full scholarship to Villanova. While she is the only deaf student at U.Va. this year, she hasn’t regretted her decision, making many friends with her personable ways and sense of humor.

Smith has given to the U.Va. community perhaps more than she has benefited.

"She has been a steady, self-effacing, positive force at the University," said Christopher Krentz, assistant professor of English and ASL, and one of her mentors. "She’s generous, committed and a wonderful model."

Smith grew up using signed English and at U.Va. easily made a switch to ASL, finding it more expressive, providing the grammar and concepts of a full language. She uses an interpreter in all her classes and for communicating with those who don’t know ASL.

"ASL is very important to me," she said, because it’s a cornerstone of deaf culture and helps provide an identity as a deaf person.

"Deaf culture is a culture like any other, and it has its own language," she said. "There are poetry and stories, but it’s signed, not written."

Smith has become a strong advocate for ASL at U.Va., and some of her closest friends are other students who have learned it. Along with other undergraduates, she founded a student organization called DEAFS (Deafness, Education, Awareness For all Students) to raise awareness about deaf-related issues.

In 1998, the group led a campaign to preserve the University’s ASL program, collecting signatures, writing newspaper articles and persuading Student Council to pass a resolution of support. Today the ASL courses stay filled and often have waiting lists.

Smith is the out-going president of the organization, which will continue sponsoring such events as Deaf Awareness Week and the annual UVA ASL/Deaf Culture Lecture Series.

In addition, she has been strong voice for diversity on Grounds. In her second year, she addressed a large audience at a forum about the importance of including deaf and disabled people in the University’s vision of diversity. She has acted in a play about college life issues, exposing many students to the beauty of sign language and encouraging them to think about deafness as a form of difference.

"She has a maturity, values and an optimistic outlook that far exceed her years," said Professor Krentz. "She is an inspiration to know."

In the fall, Smith plans to enter Western Maryland College to earn a master’s in deaf education. Her innovative honor’s thesis in psychology at U.Va. has dealt with measuring deaf children’s distress in different school environments.

One of her aims at U.Va. has been to change misperceptions about deafness. "Deaf people don’t see deafness as a disability," she said. "People shouldn’t be afraid to approach a deaf person and ask about deafness. Deafness is an identity. Some people might tend to think, ‘How awful.’ But, come on, I’m doing fine."

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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