Pioneering a program for the deaf

In almost two years at Southern Oregon University, Monica Alfaro has juggled two part-time jobs with a full course load, served as an orientation leader and Latino Student Union vice president, played indoor soccer and worked to start an American Sign Language Club. Her advisors tell her she can do everything but hear.

Alfaro is the only full-time deaf student at SOU. She attends class with an interpreter and a captionist who writes out key vocabulary terms, and she communicates through sign language and a T-Mobile Sidekick that allows her to type and send text messages.

Outside of class, she insists on attending meetings and socializing on her own, living the independent life of a typical 19-year-old college sophomore.

"You have to have some independence, an 'I can do it' attitude," said Ila Sachs, who works as Alfaro's interpreter. "That's Monica. She doesn't let her deafness stop her."

Southern Oregon was not Alfaro's first choice for college, but she was interested in the criminology and forensics programs it offered. On her first campus visit, she says she fell in love with the school and was determined to attend, despite the lack of services for deaf students.

"The first year was a little rocky, but this year has been much smoother," she said, with Sachs interpreting.

When she first arrived on campus, Alfaro was competing with more than 300 students who receive a broad range of extra support through SOU's disability services, said Theresa Lowrie, the director of the center. This year, they decided to hire Sachs as both Alfaro's interpreter and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services coordinator to grow an entire program for hearing-impaired students, Lowrie said.

"The first year we really pieced it together working with (Monica) and her patience and her insight," said Lowrie. "We're gradually going to serve additional deaf students. Once they learn the think the program is just going to grow over time."

Alfaro and Sachs have worked closely together, visiting area high schools with deaf populations to recruit more students and experimenting with new technology in the classroom such as remote captionists, who listen in on the class and provide transcripts in real time over the Internet. Sachs is also considering creating a mentorship program for students in Western Oregon University's interpreting program.

Beyond meeting federal requirements to provide disability services, a larger program will also provide much-needed social opportunities for deaf students and open up a local option for students unable to attend WOU, the next closest university with a significant deaf population, Sachs said.

Professors and friends who have met Alfaro in the past two years have been impressed with her talent and ability to thrive in a hearing world.

"She's a pretty unique individual," said Thomas Owens, a criminal justice assistant professor and Alfaro's advisor.

He recalled one class project Alfaro worked on, studying photographs of illegal dumping on government land, where she noticed a cell phone that the perpetrators had accidentally left behind.

"If it wasn't for her, we never would have seen that," Owens said. "Even though she has a couple of senses that are not like everybody else, she makes up for it. It's really pretty spectacular that someone could pick that out and see it."

Her roommate, sophomore Rebecca Weicher, said she was impressed with Alfaro's outgoing personality, which made it easy to learn to communicate when they first moved in together.

"I was really scared and nervous at first," Weicher said. "I didn't know any sign language whatsoever."

They began by writing notes constantly, and as with most of Alfaro's friends, Weicher got a crash course in signing, so she has gotten to know her roommate well.

"She's a really great person," Weicher said, "and she doesn't let anything keep her from doing what she really wants."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .

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