Deaf College senior Sophia Hu is also an active member of the Penn Rugby team (Video Producer Susanna Jaramillo)
As her teammates lowered their hands to signal the rugby play, College senior Sophia Hu moved towards the ball. An American Sign Language interpreter stood nearby to sign the coach’s instructions.
After she made a goal, Hu turned towards her teammates to be greeted with a sea of hands in the air, twisting side to side — it was the ASL sign for applause.
“One of my rugby teammates had been learning ASL and she told the rest of the team to do that,” Hu said. “One of the most heartfelt gestures that someone can make towards a Deaf person is showing interest in ASL and their culture.”
When Hu and College senior Connor McLaren first stepped onto Locust Walk four years ago, they were the first signing Deaf students to enter Penn in over 15 years.
Both Hu and McLaren had gone to mainstream, hearing schools for most of their lives. However, when it came to choosing a college, both considered hearing and Deaf schools.
“My mom and I actually visited Penn before I even applied. We talked to Student Disability Services and they gave us a tour of their interpreters, CART services and all those things,” Hu said, referencing Penn’s Communication Access RealtimeTranslation service that provides note takers to transcribe lectures. She was impressed with the resources and decided to apply to Penn a few months later.
“I think the disabilities office ended up spending more time with my mom than me when we visited because she was so worried,” Hu said, chuckling.
However, despite the strength of Penn’s academic resources, Deaf students still face many social barriers that the University is unable to bridge. Some students also say that the awareness of deafness on campus is still limited due to certain administrative policies. Wharton remains the only undergraduate school with a language requirement that does not allow ASL to satisfy it.
'Something that is part of my identity'
Despite their involvement in other activities on campus, both students found a community in each other and other students interested in ASL.
College senior Connor McLaren is one of the first Deaf students to attend Penn in more than 15 years (Photo Courtesy of Connor McLaren)
Hu and McLaren connected with each other before coming to campus through Student Disability Services. Once they entered Penn, they both became involved in Penn-in-Hand, an ASL club. Through silent dinners, ASL sessions and social events, Hu and McLaren met students who were interested in the Deaf community.
Both of them identify as culturally deaf, or Deaf with a capital “D,” which refers to physical hearing loss as well as the culture that accompanies deafness. Deaf students like Hu and McLaren not only face a physical barrier but also a cultural divide. Morevover, socially, both Hu and McLaren still face communication barriers.
“If I go to a party, sometimes I’ll ask a friend that knows ASL to go with me so they can translate a bit,” McLaren said. Student Disability Services provides accommodations for academic purposes but not social occasions outside of the University.
“Penn does a great job providing resources academically,” McLaren said. “It’s not like I want to bring around interpreters when I hang out with my friends, anyways.”
Hu said that there are also cultural aspects of Deafness that many people often aren’t aware of.
“Cultural Deafness is something that is part of my identity, which a lot of people don’t know about. It’s sort of like when people say they’re ‘American’ or ‘Chinese.’”
American Sign Language has a long history at Penn. After a group of students expressed interest in ASL, the first course was offered in 1996. In 2001, the language committee passed the initiative that ASL could fulfill the foreign language requirement.
At this time, Penn was the only Ivy League university that offered ASL as a for-credit class. While Brown University held its first ASL class in 1995, it only began offering it for credit in 2005.
However, when 2012 College graduate Arielle Spellun first took ASL during her freshman year, she realized that more steps had to be taken in order to increase awareness of the Deaf community.
She knew of a few seniors who informally met up at Allegro Pizza every week to practice signing to each other. Spellun hoped to formalize this arrangement and eventually founded Penn-in-Hand. But it was her quest to get ASL approved as a minor that absorbed her life at Penn.
“I was obsessed with it,” Spellun said. “I literally spent almost three years just lobbying to get the minor approved — ASL was my life at Penn and the minor was like my baby.”
Spellun started talking about a potential minor to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck, her Math 104 professor at the time, in October 2009. However, her proposal was rejected multiple times.
On Feb. 27, 2012, almost three years after her first proposal, Spellun received an email from current ASL Program Coordinator Jami Fisher. She had just returned to her room after her final class of the day, and she anxiously opened the response. The minor had finally gotten approved. Spellun still remembers jumping up and down with her roommate, crying in excitement.
“It had been my last chance before I graduated, and after I heard the good news, I literally ran around and told everyone, even people who didn’t care,” Spellun said. “It was probably the best day of my life.”
Currently, Penn is the only Ivy League institution to offer an ASL minor.
“This was a strongly-backed student initiative. Students from all majors and fields were very interested in taking ASL as a minor,” Fisher said.
The ASL minor is interdisciplinary, with a focus on linguistics and Deaf studies. Courses include linguistics classes, language classes and culture classes. Through the research-based capstone, an Academically Based Community Service class, the minor encourages students to work with nearby Deaf schools.
Fisher said the first minor graduated in 2014 and four more students are graduating this year. Around 20 students are currently pursuing the minor. Fisher attributes the success of Penn’s ASL program to the language center and student initiative.
Brown is the only other Ivy League institution that offers for-credit ASL classes, but Fisher said that the number of instructors limits their program.
“They only have one full-time instructor and they really limit other hires, so they can’t offer a lot of courses per semester,” she said. “They can’t offer what Penn offers in capacity and I think that’s mainly to the credit of the Penn Language Center and the Department of Linguistics being interested in doing this research.”
A final roadblock
Penn is undoubtedly the leader in pioneering the ASL program within the Ivy League. It is the only Ivy League where ASL can be taken as minor or to fulfill the foreign language requirement. But the Wharton School has not adopted this progressive policy.
College junior Meghan Swyryn first decided to take ASL because it fit easily into her schedule and fulfilled the language requirement. But after a semester of class, she decided to pursue the minor because she “learned so much more ASL in one semester than French in her four years of high school.”
Swyryn is one among a growing number of students in the College who use ASL to fulfill their language requirement. However, this policy does not extend to Wharton students, who cannot take ASL to fulfill their foreign language requirement.
McLaren cited this exclusion as a possible reason for a lack of awareness about the Deaf community at Penn. When he applied to the University, he took into account that ASL classes were offered as part of the language requirement in the College.
“I thought there would be a correlation between offering ASL and students being a little more aware and interested in Deafness and Deaf culture," he said.
McLaren expressed positive feelings about the minor and said that many of his hearing friends are students who take ASL at Penn. However, he does not think that there is a widespread awareness of ASL and deaf culture at Penn despite the existence of the ASL minor.
“It’s not very mainstream at all,” McLaren said. “I understand that ASL is like any other subject and might only appeal to a certain part of the community — but, I think changing Wharton’s ASL policy could at least improve exposure.”
According to the 2013 report of the Modern Language Association of America, American Sign Language is the third most commonly taken foreign language after Spanish and French. There are 109,577 students enrolled in ASL, seven percent of college students taking a foreign language.
“Wharton is a huge part of the University, so if even a few Wharton students took ASL there could really be a surge in interest as people get to know more about it,” McLaren said.
Lobbying for a change in Wharton’s policy is a potential goal for Penn-in-Hand, for which Hu serves as the current president. Other hearing students taking ASL are also supportive of this initiative.
Swyryn believes that Wharton’s exclusion of ASL is a reflection of its general insulation from the rest of Penn.
“Excluding ASL from specifically the Wharton language requirement is basically suggesting that deaf people can’t be relevant in business,” she said. “It’s saying that they can’t run companies and that people in the business community don’t need to know how to communicate with them.”
Nursing sophomore Hannah Kasper, who also takes ASL courses, agreed that Wharton’s policy is restrictive.
“Their rule basically says they don’t recognize ASL as a language, which is what people have been fighting for in the U.S. for so long,” Kasper said.
Fisher said that part of Wharton’s rationale for excluding ASL from counting for their language requirement is that it is “American” and does not “promote expansion of their global initiative.”
When contacted by The Daily Pennsylvanian for comment, Director of Wharton Media Relations Peter Winicov referred to a previous statement made in an earlier DP article. The last time Wharton spoke to the DP on the issue of ASL courses satisfying the foreign language requirement was in April 2009.
“Wharton’s language requirement provides students the opportunity to attain global and cultural nuance through the study of a language other than English,” Scott Romeika, director of Academic Affairs and Advising for Wharton’s Undergraduate Division, told the DP in 2009 that “ASL is encouraged as an elective and can still count toward the general education curriculum.”
“Of course, ASL is American, but taking ASL brings students into a language and culture that is different from the standard ‘American’ hearing experience,” Fisher said. “Learning one signed language can bring people into the extensive and close-knit worldwide Deaf network ... it’s actually easier to communicate with others who sign different languages than in communities where there are different spoken languages.”
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