Learning the Alphabet on the First Day of College

Eric Winnie, a first-year RIT/NTID student, learns some sign langauge in the New Signers Program. Photo by Mark Benjamin, NTID.
Story Highlights: 
  • This is the first year for the New Signers Program.
  • The New Signers Program is part of NTID's Strategic Decisions 2020 plans.
  • The class, taught by members of NTID's American Sign Language & Interpreter Education department, was limited to 17 students and was quickly filled.
  • Students learned in classrooms during the day, and had field trips to a bookstore and baseball game and participated in a scavenger hunt in the evenings.

Part of Eric Winnie’s first day of college at Rochester Institute of Technology was spent in a classroom with 16 other freshmen learning the alphabet.

He, of course, mastered his letters years ago. But the students – all deaf or hard of hearing – were now learning sign language and the manual alphabet.

“I just am used to communicating with people I know and using my voice,” says Winnie, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “I’ve never taken a sign language class before and want to learn to talk to different people.”

The New Signers Program was offered this year by RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which supports more than 1,300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students on campus. RIT/NTID accepts and accommodates students of varying communication preferences, including those who sign only, those who only use their voice, and those who sign and speak.

Typically 10 to 15 percent of incoming deaf and hard-of-hearing freshmen use their speech as their main mode for expressing information and do not know sign language. Signing is not required, but many students decide to learn to sign once they are in college to help communication.

The New Signers Program was called for in NTID’s Strategic Decisions 2020, which outlines long-term goals for the college. NTID President Gerry Buckley and Denise Kavin, special assistant for Strategic Decisions 2020 implementation, helped make the program a reality.

The class is taught by members of NTID’s American Sign Language and Interpreter Education department and was scheduled a week before other first-year students move in. The class quickly filled, and includes students from Japan and Sudan.

“There is a great demand for this program, and I predict that it will become an even greater demand from students in the future,” says Kim Kurz, ASLIE chairperson.

The students have different reasons for wanting to know sign language, but all of them ultimately wanted to have more communication options while on campus.

“I took one sign language class last year and I want to learn more. It’s a beautiful language,” says David Tawil, of Eatontown, N.J. “I want to know more about it.”

Tawil said he quickly made friends with his classmates and has asked to have a deaf roommate so he can learn to sign faster.

Cecilia Grugan, of Huntingdon, Pa., was born deaf and, like many of her classmates, received a cochlear implant as a young child.

“I’m from a hearing family and I went to a mainstreamed school. I didn’t know any other deaf people,” she says. “I’m taking this class because I want to see what the alternative is like, what the deaf world is like, what Deaf culture is like and who I really am.”

She says her mother encouraged her to sign up for the sessions.

During one class, program coordinator Lisa DeWindt-Sommer asked the students to draw pictures of their hobbies and interests. She walked around the room and signed the images she saw drawn.

Winnie drew images of volleyball, the beach and fishing. DeWindt reviewed his work and showed him how to sign those words. He enthusiastically repeated her signing.

“You’re a fast learner,” DeWindt-Sommer signed to him, nodding in approval.

And as nervous as starting college can be for any first-year student, this advance class seems to have eased some of that tension.

“I’ve really felt welcomed here already and got to know people who are the same as I am,” Tawil says.

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