In the United States, fewer than one out of every thousand people are diagnosed as “functionally deaf” before the age of eighteen. Of those individuals, only about 25,000 students with hearing loss are enrolled in higher education programs—a tiny fraction of the 20.2 million students who attend American colleges and universities.

Only two of those students, Connor McLaren and Sophia Hu, both college seniors, found their way to Penn. Though this number may seem small, Connor and Sophia are the first signing Deaf students to attend Penn in more than fifteen years. While there are a number of students at Penn who qualify as Hard of Hearing, Jami Fisher, the American Sign Language (ASL) Program Coordinator, explains that it’s “pretty uncommon” for signing Deaf students to attend elite colleges and universities like Penn.

“Let’s take it down to the bottom line, any person who wants to be on par with their peers cognitively and socially and culturally needs to have exposure to language immediately,” she says.

According to Fisher, many Deaf children, especially those born to hearing parents, are not exposed to any language at all in those crucial early years. Deaf children are ready and able to learn ASL from birth. However, since those born to hearing parents often do not learn it until later in life, they are forced to attempt to communicate in a spoken language that is not readily accessible to them. The detrimental effect of this language delay often manifests in the graduation rate of Deaf students in mainstream colleges, which hovers around 25%. Fisher argues that a Deaf student’s academic success has “less to do with what language they use and more to do with what language they’ve been exposed to and developed.”

At Penn, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Connor, who is a psychology major with a minor in Deaf Studies, and Sophia, who is a chemistry major, are both well on track to graduate. In each of their respective classrooms, and sometimes in classes that they share together, the two watch rather than listen, focusing on skilled interpreters who translate psych and chemistry lectures into rapid signs. The Student Disability Service provides interpreters upon request for class, club meetings and even Sophia’s rugby games and practices.

While Connor and Sophia’s success is obviously a result of their own academic ambition, their success is due, in part, to the almost space–age looking devices that rest in their ears. Both students received these surgically implanted devices called cochlear implants at the age of three, which provides them some sense of sound and speech and allowed both to attend mainstream schools for the majority of their education.

Connor explains that, ”English has more words [than ASL], so if you want to convey something academic related, English is really the preferred method because there’s more specificity.” But outside the classroom, Connor prefers to use ASL. He argues that despite its limited vocabulary, ASL’s visual nature is better suited for emotionally charged conversations, because feelings can be genuinely expressed through facial expressions and body language. He concludes that, “On an academic level, I probably prefer English, but on a social level I prefer ASL.”

As Connor speaks, his eyes shift towards three of his friends sitting at the other end of the table. Though they are all naturally hearing, they communicate in a dynamic combination of speech and sign. One of these friends, Valerie Chiang, laughs, “You know what [another friend] said to me yesterday? She was like, ‘Is it weird for you to not sign and talk at the same time?’ I was like, ‘no, not really.’” But even as she says this, she makes gestures and what Connor calls “half signs” that match what she’s saying.

Valerie and one of Connor's other friends, Asana Okocha, are seniors who have been taking ASL since their freshman year, before they were even friends with Connor. Their involvement with ASL has gone far beyond simply fulfilling the language requirement, though. Both girls are heavily involved with Penn in Hand, Penn’s Deaf culture club. Though the club has been around for about six years, Jami Fisher explains that it has been a “very well–run, well–established and close–knit group” for the past four years, which is likely a result of Sophia—who is club president, Connor and all of their friends.

Connor estimates that about half of his friends have taken formal ASL classes, while Sophia says that most of her friends learned the sign language that they know through their daily interactions with her. Still though, both Connor and Sophia express that they have very few friends who don’t know any ASL at all.

While both Connor and Sophia express their gratitude for having great friends who are willing to learn ASL, both openly acknowledge that being deaf can be socially limiting at a predominantly hearing university. In loud, crowded settings like parties, Connor and Sophia are forced to rely on friends who sign or text in order to communicate. Sophia explains that even in more intimate settings, communicating with two or more people who are speaking makes hearing and lip reading difficult. “One–on–one, I’m fine,” says Sophia. “But when a third person joins in I’m completely lost. I think a lot of hearing people don’t realize how the addition of just one person in the conversation can really make a big difference.”

But the problem isn’t just one sided. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by my Deafness,” says Sophia. “I can understand why they would be scared at first, but over time you get used to it.”

Interestingly, though, as both Connor and Sophia elaborate on this subject, they clarify that this fear seems to apply to one half of the population much more than the other. “Females I’ve noticed in general are a lot more open to differences. They’re like 'Oh, this person has a different story, I want to learn about that,’” Connor explains. “Whereas guys, they’re scared of anything that’s new, they want the same old, the conformist perspective. So that, that poses a challenge for me.”

And it certainly does pose a challenge, for both of them. While both seem satisfied on a socially platonic level, the fact that men seem to be much more intimidated by Deafness makes romantic relationships more difficult. Connor muses that, “a lot of people, I think, are hesitant to become involved with someone that’s Deaf.” He thinks the problem lies in simple misunderstanding: That they don’t know if they’ll need to learn sign language or how well he can hear or speak. Yet despite the fact that he can speak and hear well, Connor admits that, “a lot of the time, guys… they respect me, but they’re scared.”

Though Sophia notes that a few of the guys that she’s dated have been willing to pick up a few signs, she too has found her Deafness to be romantically limiting. Even platonically, she claims that she has many fewer guy friends than girl friends.

Although Connor and Sophia both seems happy with their overall social experience at Penn, Connor admits that he did consider going to an exclusively Deaf school, like Gallaudet University. “In some ways, socially, I would have been better there, 'cause everyone signs, and I wouldn’t have had as many communication issues.” Academically though, Connor knows Penn was a better fit.

On top of studying psychology and Deaf Studies, he has become fluent in French and Spanish and proficient in German. After graduation, he plans to become a psychologist who works with underrepresented populations, such as the Deaf and LGBTQ communities. Connor admits that despite the social benefits, the level of rigor and resources offered at Gallaudet are just not comparable to those at Penn. He pauses, looking at his friends, and adds, “but I have some hearing friends here who know sign, and I love them so much so really, it’s fine. And the Deaf Studies program here is really good.”

Fisher, who also administers the Deaf Studies minor, boasts that the program is quite strong, even compared to other elite colleges. “Among the Ivies,” she explains, “we’re actually the only one with even a robust program, let alone a minor.” Though it was only established three years ago, the Deaf Studies minor reflects the growing trend toward recognizing ASL as a bonafide world language, worthy of study. Despite the fact that ASL is a visual language, the Deaf Studies program aims to teach students about the rich oral and written tradition associated with ASL.

The Deaf Studies minor doesn't only require proficiency in the language itself, it also places a huge emphasis on the study of Deaf Culture and the Deaf Community. Fisher explains that Deaf Culture refers to “a sort of mindset or experience, a way of being,” whereas Deaf Community refers to smaller communities that exist all over the United States and the world. Fisher explains that like any minority group, members of the Deaf community rely on one another.

Although Deafness is certainly somewhat associated with disability, one of the most important concepts in Deaf Culture is the concept of “Deaf Gain” or “Deaf Pride.” While Connor and Sophia both touched on this subject, Fisher sums it up perfectly when she says, “I think hearing people only see the surface of what Deaf people can’t do, as opposed to what assets they have.”

The Deaf Studies Program, Penn in Hand and individual advocates like Connor and Sophia all invite members of the hearing community to push through those initial assumptions and feelings of intimidation. Connor, who makes an effort to speak and hear in order to communicate with the hearing community, invites the rest of the Penn community to make an effort and “meet us halfway.”

Julie Levitan is a sophomore from Pennsylvania studying English. She is taking ASL to fulfill her language requirement.