By KATELYN HOWARD
“What should I major in?”
“How many classes should I take?”
“What is it like living in the dorms?”
These are common questions prospective students have before enrolling at the University of Oklahoma, but Katherine Stroh had a different question: “Where can I practice American Sign Language on campus?”
As a freshman in 2016, Stroh, who is now a junior biology and Spanish double major, discovered OU did not have an ASL program or club, but she was not alone in wondering why. Other students and staff had the same question.
In fall of 2017, the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology answered these demands by offering ASL courses, which are part of the Special Education program.
“Initially when I came, I was hoping for a minor that could maybe turn into a major,” Stroh said. “But since we didn’t have anything, even getting ASL I was a win for us.”
But after only a year, the future of the program has become uncertain.
The program has not been able to secure funding at the university and college level. It was supported last year by one-time funding, but Teresa Debacker, interim chair of the Department of Educational Psychology, said the goal of the college is to secure permanent funding.
“I think that the barrier that we’re up against right now is that ASL, like lots of other things on campus right now, are just on hold again while President Gallogly gets an understanding of the budget, establishes his own priorities and then releases funds accordingly,” Debacker said.
ASL is the seventh most enrolled language at OU for the fall 2018 semester with 119 students, according to a document provided by Enrollment and Student Financial Services. The university offers courses for 17 languages.
There are six sections of ASL I and one section of ASL III offered for the fall 2018 semester. Debacker said ASL III will be indefinitely discontinued after this semester, but the program is not ending.
Over the summer, Stroh said her and other ASL students received an email about the decision since many majors require students to take a minimum of three semesters of a foreign language. This has led to some students having to enroll in ASL III at different universities to complete their major’s foreign language requirement.
Stroh said she has encouraged students to write testimonies about how the program has impacted students and made a difference at OU, which she plans to give to the provost. She has also reached out to the Oklahoma Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Oklahoma Association of the Deaf for support.
Stroh said she became interested in learning ASL in high school so she could communicate with a deaf classmate. Once ASL was offered at OU, Stroh and another student decided to start the American Sign Language Club on campus. She is now the president of the club, which meets twice a week and has about 20 active members.
Tuesday evening meetings are geared towards beginners and students interested in learning ASL. A theme such as food or expressing emotion is chosen for the night and is used to teach members signs related to the theme. A deaf culture fact of the week is also presented to members.
Friday lunchtime meetings are for silent conversations where people socialize using ASL and practice conversations skills. Stroh said the silent environment is important to experience.
Sometimes the program’s assistant professor and two adjunct instructors, who are all deaf, come to the Friday meetings. Stroh said a few deaf and hard of hearing students from OU are part of the club; instead, its members are mostly beginners.
“As you start learning ASL, you start learning about deaf culture and then you open yourself up to a whole population of people that you otherwise might not even think about,” Stroh said. “It’s easy to kind of marginalize that group, but having ASL and having it be a strong program makes it so that this group that has been marginalized and ostracized for so, so long gets hopefully some sort of voice and some sort of recognition here at OU.”
During a press conference in August, Gallogly said he would decide later down the road whether to cut some academic programs, according to The OU Daily. After taking office in July, this is part of his on-going effort to “fix” the budget and keep student tuition flat.
Other areas of campus have already experienced Gallogly’s budget cuts. Most recently, The OU Daily reported that OU’s Office of Undergraduate Research and OU’s Center for Research Program Development and Enrichment have been terminated as well as 50 staff positions, which were mainly in OU’s landscaping department.
While the future of OU’s ASL program is unclear, Oklahoma State University’s program is the opposite.
Sandie Busby, ASL program coordinator at OSU, said the university’s ASL program offers an ASL minor and has been approved for an ASL Bachelor of Arts degree. The program has been under the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Languages and Literatures since 2012, but Busby said the program did not initially succeed when it started in 2004 under the Department of English.
Since ASL is based on French, Busby said she thinks the ASL program at OU would be improved if it was moved to the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics instead of the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology.
Dylan Herrick, chair of the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, said the department would like to address the issues several of its language programs like Italian, Russian and Japanese are facing before adding another language. He said the solution for ASL funding lies at the college or provost level.
Herrick said it would not make sense for every foreign language at the university to be taught in his department since languages are offered in multiple different departments at OU. Languages are offered such as Kiowa in the Department of Native American Studies and Latin in the Department of Classics and Letters.
Even though ASL is not in his department, Herrick said ASL should still be viewed as a foreign language with its own grammar since some people view it as just spelling English out with signs. According to the Department of Educational Psychology’s website, ASL and Native American Languages qualify as foreign languages due to the State Regent’s Foreign Language competency policy.
Many OU programs are facing similar budget problems, but students and staff are continuing to fight for the future of the ASL program.
“It (ASL) really has changed my life,” Stroh said. “It’s impacting more than just OU. It’s impacting the entirety of Norman and in Oklahoma.”