Student Finding Cultural Identity In Deafness And Teaching Others
May 6, 2002-- Rebecca Leigh
Smith: University of Virginia Echols Scholar, Deans 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).
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,
shell work at a camp for deaf-blind children, then make a
cross-country driving-and-camping trip to Alaska.
watching her makes me tired," a former roommate said.
of the motivating forces in Smiths many accomplishments has
been her deafness. It has also given her a strong identity as part
of a culture.
times the path wasnt 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
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 hasnt regretted her decision, making
many friends with her personable ways and sense of humor.
has given to the U.Va. community perhaps more than she has benefited.
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. "Shes generous, committed and
a wonderful model."
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 dont know ASL.
is very important to me," she said, because its a cornerstone
of deaf culture and helps provide an identity as a deaf person.
culture is a culture like any other, and it has its own language,"
she said. "There are poetry and stories, but its signed,
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.
1998, the group led a campaign to preserve the Universitys
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.
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.
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 Universitys
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.
has a maturity, values and an optimistic outlook that far exceed
her years," said Professor Krentz. "She is an inspiration
the fall, Smith plans to enter Western Maryland College to earn
a masters in deaf education. Her innovative honors thesis
in psychology at U.Va. has dealt with measuring deaf childrens
distress in different school environments.
of her aims at U.Va. has been to change misperceptions about deafness.
"Deaf people dont see deafness as a disability,"
she said. "People shouldnt 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, Im
Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856