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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Cornell Student Advocating for ASL


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Mary Grace—a Math and Computer Science student at Cornell University and member of the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project (CUDAP). 

"Ask away: 5 questions" banner image with portrait of Mary Grace

1. When did you start learning American Sign Language—what inspired you and how did you get started?

I started learning ASL when I was in seventh grade because I found an introductory book in my house and thought the language was interesting. I began practicing with friends at school but never took a formal class. This continued once I came to Cornell and realized that there was no ASL class offered during the academic year.

So, I joined CUDAP to continue to learn and practice ASL, as well as to help advocate for the establishment of classes at Cornell.

2. Why do you think it’s important for young adults to learn American Sign Language?

There are many reasons I began learning ASL and would suggest for someone else to do so as well. With the ability to converse in sign language, an individual may converse with many members of the D/deaf community. This not only allows greater accessibility but also provides an opportunity for learning about Deaf culture. Finally, ASL is a beautiful language and is quite fun to learn!

3. CUDAP has successfully advocated for the implementation of American Sign Language courses to Cornell University’s curriculum. For other aspiring language advocates, what was your first step in accomplishing this?

The first step toward advocating for access to a language is realizing the need for the language in your community.

In 2011, CUDAP was founded after an emergency situation in the area called for an ASL interpreter, but none were available.

Cornell already had a program in place, the Translator Interpreter Program, which allows certified students to act as translators/interpreters in these settings; however, no students were certified to interpret ASL—not because they were not qualified but because there is no professor on campus who may certify students in this language. Thus, CUDAP was created as part of Cornell’s Public Service Center in order to address the community’s need for improved ASL resources and to raise awareness of issues facing the D/deaf and H/hard of H/hearing.

Toward this end, establishing ASL classes at Cornell has been our main initiative for the past 8 years. Now that classes are scheduled to begin next fall, we hope that the community will have increased knowledge of Deaf culture and a better ability to communicate.

4. How has CUDAP shaped your and others understanding of the Deaf Community? What do you enjoy most about being a part of CUDAP?

Before joining CUDAP, I knew very little about the Deaf community.

CUDAP has taught me not only the existence of a culture but also better ways to be considerate and provide appropriate accommodations to multiple communities.

I hope that CUDAP’s work has exposed other Cornell students to new ideas and cultures as well.

My favorite thing about CUDAP is the people who compose this organization. I have made my best friends in college through CUDAP and enjoy working with them immensely. Their effort and dedication to the group continuously inspire me to work hard to advocate for what I believe in. Together, we have not only enacted change in our university, but also had a lot of fun and have grown very close.

5. What advice do you have for students who are learning American Sign Language? Are there any practice tips you can share? 

The best way to practice ASL is to use it.

If at all possible, find other people on campus learning ASL and practice with them. For example, members of CUDAP use the Lifeprint website to learn ASL on our own, but meet up weekly to practice together. This really reinforces what we learn and makes it a lot of fun.

BONUS QUESTION: Can you share your favorite experience using ASL with others?

Three years ago, a man approached me at my local mall with a written card that he was looking for help. He had also written that he was deaf. Having known some ASL and already being a member of CUDAP, instead of writing back to him I signed in response to his question. His eyes lit up when I used his native language.

The man then excitedly asked me how much ASL I knew and we had a short conversation. Being self-taught, I am not near fluent in ASL, but I did manage to help him out in that moment.

It still makes me happy to think about how excited that man was to have a conversation with a complete stranger, but it also reminds me that I want to continue to improve my ASL skills as much as possible so I may have similar interactions in the future.

What’s next for Mary Grace?

“While I’m not sure that I will use ASL every day in my life, I do not doubt that I will encounter more D/deaf/HH/hh individuals who use ASL and then call upon my knowledge of the language. I also enjoy using ASL with other students to practice or converse in quiet settings, which is unlikely to change.”

For more information on American Sign Language college programs, scholarship opportunities, and student testimonials, visit our Lead with ASL page.  And, as always, don’t forget to share your language learning story @LeadWLanguages on social media!