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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

The joy and growing pains of American Sign Language at Tufts

Students and faculty share insights into and aspirations for ASL course offerings.

ASL Class 3.jpg

An American Sign Language class is pictured on Sept. 26.

The Tufts American Sign Language program, housed under the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study & Human Development, fosters a tight-knit community of students who are passionate to learn and eager to take courses.

For some students, having an ASL program was a deciding factor in their choosing Tufts. This was the case for junior Brooke Hart.

 “[ASL] was one of the reasons that I picked Tufts,” Hart said.

Hart is not the only student who is eager to take ASL courses; the program fills up its three course offerings so quickly that students have to fill out an application before being allowed to enroll in ASL classes. But for those who get in, their efforts more than pay off.

“Because of the teaching style, you really end up building a community as a class in a way that I have never had in any other class,” Hart said.

The program encourages a collaborative immersive environment from the beginning. After the first day of class, there is no interpreter present, which means that students must use ASL to communicate. While it may seem intimidating, the challenge serves to help students pick up the language quickly.

According to junior Kinsey Ellis, who has completed all of the ASL courses, ASL also offers students practical skills they can take beyond the classroom.

 “ASL makes me a better listener. You wouldn’t think that obviously, but having to be observant of everyone around you… it’s something that I’ve taken with me,” Ellis said. “There’s a whole different side of communication that I hadn’t previously even considered.

Yet despite being beloved by its students, the ASL program falls short of what it could offer; Tufts does not offer as many ASL courses as other languages, nor is there the option for students to pursue a major or minor in the discipline.

“I knew that [ASL] was something that I wanted to continue with,” Ellis said. “I would have loved to continue after [ASL 3]. But with only three classes, it is what it is.”

At the end of the Fall 2022 semester, the Tufts Community Union Senate unanimously passed a resolution that called for the expansion of the ASL program to include two more language classes, a culture class and offer a minor.

However, the Tufts administration has made little progress towards actualizing the resolution’s goals. For junior Ben Sagerian, who helped spearhead the resolution, Tufts’ lack of action has proved to be a point of frustration.

“Every other language has at least five or six courses, plus culture courses, plus a minor,” Sagerian said.“People who take ASL can’t fulfill both parts of their language requirement… After ASL 3, where do we go?”

After the resolution passed, Sagerian said he met with members of the Tufts administration, including James Glaser, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, to discuss the next steps for the program. However, Sagerian was not satisfied with the meeting’s outcome.

“It was clear that our resolution, as it stands, is not something that the university can do now,” Sagerian said. “When you hear that more academic courses can’t be funded, especially when it’s something you care about, emotionally that’s difficult.”

Sagerian said the administration proposed testing out a new ASL curriculum through the Experimental College, and an ASL 4 course could potentially be available in Spring 2025. However, for some students, this change will come too late.

“That’s not soon enough for me. I’ll be graduated by that point,” Hart said.

Students aren’t alone in dreaming of a bigger future for the program; this hope extends to the ASL faculty members. The Daily interviewed ASL professors Jim Lipsky and Crystal Eusebio through interpreters.

Lipsky, who has been teaching ASL at Tufts for 32 years, finds students motivated and passionate about the language.

“It’s just a booming field. We can’t even keep up with the demand,” he said.

Another obstacle that the program faces is that ASL teachers are hired by Tufts as part-time lecturers. Consequently, some prospective students may perceive Tufts as less attractive compared to other Boston-area universities that offer more robust ASL and Deaf Studies departments, including Boston University and Northeastern University.

“We’re so far behind, I feel like we need to catch up,” Lipsky said. “There’s so many things that we want to be able to teach that we just don’t have the ability [to]. If we had it as a minor, we could add so much more.”

Not only would adding a minor mean creating extra courses for students to further develop their signing skills, but it would also mean the addition of a culture course to the program.

“ASL is a language, yes. But there’s also accessibility to the deaf culture and the community,” Eusebio said. “[Students] need to learn about deaf culture because it’s what makes us who we are, it makes up our community, it’s the things that we value and everything that we hold dear.”

Eusebio also believes it is important for students to see deaf culture outside of Tufts.

“[The deaf community is] more than just me and Jim,” she said. “It’s more than just us signing and deaf people in the classroom. Getting that exposure to the community and to our culture is very important.”

In the meantime, students are finding other ways to maintain their ASL proficiency. The Tufts ASL Society, co-founded by Sagerian, has been key to students’ staying engaged with the language and the deaf community; in fact, it may be the only option for students who have completed all of Tufts’ ASL courses.

Despite the roadblocks, students still reflect on their experience with the program with nothing but joy.

“The professors are incredible and they deserve the world,” Sagerian said. “I think if anyone can get the chance to take ASL, even if it's one semester while they’re here, just do it. It's so worth it.”

There is also optimism about the program's future and hope it will get more recognition.

“People are always fighting for [the ASL program] and always emailing,” Sagerian said. “And hopefully, one day it will happen.”