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Undergraduate degree granted to student who is deaf

Jennifer Sooley is pictured receiving her degree on May 25.

By Janet Harron


A true milestone was reached at Memorial’s recent convocation ceremonies.
Jennifer Sooley became the first person that is deaf and who uses American Sign Language (ASL) exclusively to communicate to graduate with an undergraduate degree from Memorial, according to Ruth North at the Glenn Roy Blundon Centre (Student Affairs and Services).

Ms. Sooley graduated with an anthropology/sociology major and a minor in women’s studies.

Ms. Sooley was a student at the Newfoundland School for the Deaf for the majority of her elementary and secondary education, travelling home to Heart’s Delight on weekends to visit her family. After graduating from high school in 2000 she moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Gallaudet University, the world leading undergraduate school for deaf and hard of hearing undergraduate students.

Following the devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Sooley decided to return home and enrolled at Memorial in the fall of 2002 as a part-time student.
“It seems like such a long time ago now,” she comments through her ASL interpreter. Ms. Sooley says that attending Memorial didn’t seem groundbreaking to her at the time. “I just registered and went!”

Ms. Sooley was accompanied in each class by an ASL interpreter (funding for interpreters is provided by the provincial government) and she developed a practice of sitting in the front of each class so she could see the interpreter and professor clearly. For group projects with other students an interpreter would also attend and email was used regularly.

“I always figured out a way … It did take a lot of patience, sometimes something wouldn’t work but I just persevered,” she said.

One of the few concessions to Ms. Sooley’s deafness was the extra time she was given to complete exams that she took at the Glenn Roy Blundon Centre (Student Affairs and Services).

“My first language is American Sign Language, so I sometimes needed extra help with the language structure of English,” she explains.

The Blundon Centre covered the costs for interpreters that were required for Ms. Sooley’s attendance at presentations, meetings on campus, and extra-curricular activities including ArtsWorks and Make Midterm Matter for which she received a bronze VIP award. The Blundon Centre also provided the sign language interpretation (with Ms. Sooley’s input) at convocation and for the first time sign language interpreters were visible on DELT’s live web feed of the ceremony. Ms. Sooley was also provided with a hand held monitor so she could have a close view of the interpreter while in her seat at the Arts & Culture Centre.

“We were determined to set up the best quality signing possible at Jennifer’s convocation,” says Ruth North of the Blundon Centre. Ms. North acknowledges the tremendous support the Centre received from the convocation team, including Kevin O’Leary from DELT, Paula Eddy-Shea of Marketing and Communications, and Dr. Chris Sharpe, the University Marshal. She also acknowledges the assistance the Blundon Centre received over the past eight years in setting up services at the university from Interpreting Services of Newfoundland and Labrador and from the Newfoundland Coordinating Council on Deafness.

“Jennifer can certainly be viewed as a role model for other people who are deaf who would like to study at Memorial,” says Ms. North.

Having been involved with advocacy in the deaf community since 2005, Ms. Sooley is currently on the board of directors of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf and is busy networking across Canada on deaf women’s issues in preparation for a national conference in 2011.

She hopes to eventually find full time work at home and hasn’t shut the door on further education either. Newfoundland is a particularly challenging place in which to be deaf, according to Jennifer, due to isolation and lack of services. Historically many deaf people have had to leave the province in order to access services and find employment.

Acknowledging that although Lifelong Learning offers courses in ASL, she’d ultimately like to see a greater emphasis on deaf culture at Memorial.

“My dream would be a deaf resource centre or a program in deaf studies,” she says. “I just want to show people that a person who is deaf can get into the education system and make it work for them. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of struggle but it’s worth it.”
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