I’ve been enamored with ASL since I was 8 years old. I remember seeing a Deaf couple signing to one another in a grocery store checkout line and being fascinated by the fluid movements of their hands and the animated expressions on their faces. I was drawn to it; it struck something deep inside me…a feeling I couldn’t articulate or understand then.
That same year, my grandfather took an assistant pastor position at a large church in a nearby city, leaving the small community church I’d grown up in with him as my pastor since I was born. On one of the first occasions my family visited my grandparents’ new church, my eyes lighted on the ASL interpreter positioned at the base of the platform, hands flying through the air. Again, I was transfixed. (Even to this day—more than two decades later, my attention is focused on the interpreter when I visit my grandparents’ church.)
This fascination flitted in and out of my sight line throughout my adolescence. In high school, my family began attending a new church where I joined an interpretive movement/mime/drama team. Here, I found an outlet for my desire to sign. My passion for sign language grew as I traveled to several national and regional drama conferences with the team. At these conferences, I met a woman, Tyra Lokey, who was a worship leader/dance instructor who incorporated ASL into her routines. My best friends and I became her groupies at these conferences. We chose her breakout sessions exclusively, chatted with her between sessions, and ran errands for her—she actually started calling us her groupies and would call us out when we entered one of her classes.
There was a joyous, fiery passion for sharing her love of God through sign language and music—it radiated from every part of her. One night at the national conference, as I sat in the group worship, I watched Tyra pour herself into worshipping through sign language. As I sat in the balcony, I heard the Holy Spirit speak to my spirit, “You could do that.” As this notion soaked into my heart, I responded silently, yet firmly: “I could do that.” Again, I felt that soul-deep stirring in my heart as I prayed, “Is that what I’m supposed to do?”—“that” being ASL in some form and fashion.
I never really intended to go to college. When I was in high school, people would ask me about my plans for higher education and I just shrugged them off. Post secondary schooling didn’t seem to be within my reach. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life—I was interested in teaching, but far too timid for that profession. Toward the end of high school, I began to think about ASL interpreting as an option, but I didn’t know ASL outside the few dozen signs I knew from the drama team—or anyone who was Deaf, for that matter. All these possibilities seemed too far out of reach. I was too shy, too quiet, and too afraid to pursue any of them.
Finally, in 2005, at the age of 21, I enrolled at North Greenville University–a small, local Christian college. I began as an Early Childhood Education major, but switched to the English program during my sophomore year. I continued to be drawn to the field of ASL and Deaf culture, but my university offered no classes related to either. In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I explored an option to transfer to another college to pursue a degree in Deaf Education, but ultimately felt that I was to stay where I was.
Later that semester, it became clearer that the Lord had a purpose for me in staying at NGU. I awoke at 4:00 one April morning with an outline for an ASL course proposal on my mind. I had no idea what to do with that information, so I went to my advisor and discussed it with her. She, along with several other professors in the English department, encouraged me to pursue this crazy idea of undertaking a huge project that would eventually include writing a research thesis on 1.) why NGU needed an ASL program, 2.) the availability of/ need for ASL programs within a five-state radius, and 3.) the validity of ASL as a language, as well as a survey of both the student body and faculty of NGU to assess the interest-level in ASL classes.An independent study was created by Dr. Catherine Sepko, Dean of Humanities; Dr, Cheryl Collier, English Department Chair; and my advisor, Dr. Julia Drummond to give me the parameters to conduct my research in the fall of my junior year. Their support, along with many other faculty members was invaluable throughout the process. They warned me of the opposition I would face, supported me in every aspect of my research and writing, and believed that I could do what I thought was impossible.
On January 23, 2007 I presented an overview of Deaf culture and the history of ASL, a summary of my thesis, and a proposal for the addition of an ASL course at NGU to a faculty panel. At that point, I handed over the proposal to Dr. Sepko, Dr. Walter Johnson (the Curriculum Committee chair at the time), and Dr. Bill Stuermann (the head of the Foreign Language department). I had done what God had asked me to do when I woke up with the proposal outline on my mind the previous spring.
I graduated in December 2009 without seeing my dream of ASL classes at NGU come to fruition. The proposal was still being pushed in committee meetings, but it was in a holding pattern. Obstacle after obstacle appeared.
In the Spring of 2011, a qualified instructor had been hired and the first ASL class began at NGU. I was in the front row, completely in awe that I was watching the vision God had placed in my heart unfolding before my eyes.
Today, 5 years after ASL was introduced on campus, NGU offers five levels of ASL classes, a Deaf Culture class, and an ASL linguistics class—taught by four faculty members. This semester, an ASL component was added to the Interdisciplinary Studies degree. It took me a long time to own my role in the process of bringing ASL to NGU. In fact, until a conversation I had with counselor Bob Hamp and my friend Anna, I believed that “anybody could’ve done this.” But God hadn’t asked just anybody to do this crazy thing—it was me, and He equipped me to do exactly what He called me to do. He planted the seed of a burning passion for ASL and the Deaf community in my heart and coaxed it to life.
This process and experience fanned the flame of my passion for ASL and the Deaf community even more, motivating me to begin exploring options for a master’s degree in teaching ASL…
…until I hit a proverbial wall and buried that dream…