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ASL program “immerses” students in Houston’s deaf culture

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ASLI students signed the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Heroes game on Oct. 2.| Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

The motivation to learn a language can be as simple as expanding the mind, enhancing a resume or traveling. For American Sign Language Interpreting junior Shanda McKinney, the unique experience of attending an elementary school that taught both deaf and hearing students greatly impacted and influenced her pursuit of a degree in American Sign Language Interpretation.

“Those kids took me in and taught me their language and culture and I wanted to further that education,” McKinney said.

The University of Houston is the only school in Texas to offer a four-year degree program in American Sign Language Interpretation. Students who enroll in the competitive program will not only graduate with a Bachelors degree, but also will have full capability to interpret between English and American Sign Language.

Founded in 2009, the ASLI department is a program designed to prepare students through individualized, language-intensive education and training to pursue careers in professional interpretation.

“That is what brought me here, but when I got here I loved it so much more,” McKinney said.

The ASLI program possesses a rigor that stands apart from other language departments. Students are required to take the first four levels of ASL and other prerequisites before officially applying. In order to ensure language proficiency, classes such as Deaf culture and Multiculturalism in Interpreting are also required.

“Those kids took me in and taught me their language and culture, and I wanted to further that education.”

– Shanda McKinney, American Sign Language Interpreting junior

The admissions process is competitive and students must also include a video submission of them signing and video interviews that are completely in sign language.

“Class size is limited (in line with national standards), as ASL is a visual language and attention must be given to each student to ensure language acquisition occurs accurately,” said program advisor and instructional assistant professor Sharon Grigsby Hill.

During the first four semesters of classes, the students are immediately immersed in deaf culture. The beginner’s courses are taught entirely by native users of ASL and speaking is prohibited in the classroom.

McKinney believes the lack of an interpreter in the classes immerses the students and triggers them to learn the language.

In addition to the classroom, the ASLI department provides many resources that help connect students to the Houston deaf community.

“The ASLI Faculty plans events throughout the year to ensure that students have access to native ASL users and can learn both the language used by the deaf as well as gain awareness of deaf culture,” Hill said.

Interaction with the local deaf community is strongly encouraged and allows students to get essential practice with native users and have a stronger awareness of deaf culture.

Music education sophomore Abel Rocha said he has an interest in taking ASL as his foreign language.

“I really want to gain insight on deaf culture and to be a part of something that is really beautiful,” Rocha said.

Since it’s beginning, the ASLI department continues to expand with more than double the enrollment that it had in 2009. Every year, the students are provided with new opportunities and training to continue developing their language skills and learning about the vibrant deaf culture in Houston.

“If you are wondering if this is for you, go spend time in the Deaf community and just talk to people; use what you have learned and have fun,” McKinney said.

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