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April 17, 2005

Big Spring college for deaf sheads second-hand look in favor of high-tech efficiency

From:, TX - Apr 17, 2005

Johnnye Montgomery
Midland Reporter-Telegram

BIG SPRING - SWCID, the little college that started out 25 years ago with a handful of deaf students living in old Webb Air Force Base barracks with their instructors, has come of age.

It's still located on the west-facing hillside overlooking southwest Big Spring, but Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf has shed its second-hand, hand-me-down look in favor of efficiency, style and high-tech.

The once ragged and windblown hillside is now covered in grass and flowers, walkways and parking lots that surround the brick-faced buildings. Students and staff, visitors and vendors come and go, engaged in constant conversation with hands flying and faces animated.

The old cafeteria is now the library, updated and brightly lit. The 1940-era barracks dorms are gone, replaced by bright, clean structures that don't groan and shake when the spring winds blow - dorm rooms replete with ample electrical outlets, showers and toilets that work all the time, and most important of all to a deaf student, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) approved strobe lighting for door, telephone and alarm signals.

Every office is equipped with TTYs (specially equipped telephones for the deaf) and TV sets with decoders, and there are six video-relay stations, the newest thing on the block, placed in strategic locations throughout the campus.

The classrooms are arranged with low tables and desks placed in semi-circles for maximum visibility of hands so every student can see what every other student is saying.

David O'Donnell, general and preparatory studies instructor at the college, who uses hearing aids and acts as interpreter, carries on conversations simultaneously in voice and American Sign Language (ASL).

He explains the school is getting ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary next week with SWCIDFest, which is expected to bring SWCID alumni pouring into Big Spring.

"For alumni who have not been back to the college for a while, this will be a big surprise," he said.

"At 25, this is still a fairly young school, and we're changing as we grow to meet the needs of our students.

"I've only been here for five years, and I've seen lots of changes, especially in technology."

The alumni coming in will find the curriculum also has been broadened and changed. Where SWCID once offered a limited general studies and preparatory program for students planning to transfer to other colleges and universities, the college has become much more technology- and vocation-oriented. It presently offers some 38 courses of study, about half of them through its sponsor, Howard College, across town in the center of Big Spring.

While on the surface, deaf and hard-of-hearing students have the same needs and interests hearing students have, their means of pursuing those needs and interests can be quite different.

Deaf members of even the most loving hearing families are often isolated and ignored, according to Daniel Campbell, interpreter training program coordinator and division director of SWCID's workforce education program,

"Statistics show that about 90 percent of deaf children have (two) hearing parents, and the number of parents who sign is very low," Campbell said. "At home, or on vacation, or when they sit down to dinner, everyone else talks and the deaf person stays silent.

"Much of the time, while family conversations are going on, the deaf person is watching TV."

Provost Ron Brasel said as a result, one of the deaf student's greatest challenges is expressing ideas.

"They can express themselves very well in ASL, but it's very challenging reading and writing."

Brasel said from the very start, SWCID's purpose was to create an environment designed to enhance the entire spectrum of learning, so that whatever the students' goals were, they could successfully carry them out. How successful the college has been is evident in the statistics of its growth and in the careers of its alumni.

There are SWCID alumni working for the IRS, in schools for the deaf and in city and state governments. One is a trilingual - English, Spanish, ASL - interpreter for the state of Alabama. One alum, Jeff Jordan, has been a geographic information system specialist for the city of Midland for the last 10 years.

SWCID, the only completely self-contained junior community college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, has from its outset attracted not only Texas students, but students from around the nation and abroad.

Second year student Lee Handler, 19, is from Chicago. Although he has had a cochineal implant and can now hear and speak, Handler, like all SWCID students, communicates primarily in ASL. In this interview, he spoke with the aid of O'Donnell, explaining he and his parents had found SWCID on the Internet.

"We chose (SWCID) because we were running out of time, and this seemed to have the classes I wanted," he said. "When I came and enrolled, the classes were a perfect match for me."

Handler plans to build a career around working with deaf children. "I have had quite a lot of experience working with very young children, both deaf and hearing, but I really prefer to concentrate on work with deaf and hard-of-hearing kids."

He said he had been to Texas once before coming to SWCID.

"But I love it here. My family has always traveled, and now I can't wait for them to come here, and for us to travel through West Texas."

Handler is best friends with Marissa Gaston, 19, a graduate of Odessa High School. Gaston, who spoke in ASL and was interpreted through O'Donnell, said although her major at SWCID is graphic arts, she plans to transfer to Waco next year to study culinary arts in preparation for pursuit of a career as a chef.

Twenty-year-old Elia DeAlejandro is an office technology major from San Antonio who was recruited to SWCID by college relations director, John Green. She speaks entirely in ASL.

"This school has been a wonderful experience for me," she said through interpreter O'Donnell. "But when I graduate, I plan to go back to San Antonio, where my family lives."

City of Midland GIS (Geographic Information System) specialist Jeff Jordan attended SWCID after graduating from Odessa High School in 1990. After spending two years at SWCID majoring in medical lab technology, dental lab technology and industrial drafting technology, he transferred to the National Technology Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. He graduated from NTID in 1994.

Jordan, who was born deaf, said he can feel loud sounds, such as those of planes and trains and thunderstorms. He said he has communicated all of his life with hearing friends through body language and sign language, but it wasn't until he attended SWCID that he became proficient in ASL.

He communicates at work by writing on note pads, computer and e-mail. Occasionally he has used the services of interpreters during important meetings.

Jordan was appointed to the Texas Commission for the Deaf by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, where he served through 2004. He presently serves on the advisory board of SWCID.

"I am grateful that I went to SWCID because I met wonderful instructors, counselors, staff people and students who can sign," Jordan said in an e-mail interview. He credits SWCID for his ability to become successful in both the hearing and deaf culture environments.

Now 25 years into SWCID's history, Brasel said he's optimistic about its future.

"We had 150 students enrolled this past year, which is the highest enrollment we've ever had, and we already see that we'll have more next year.

"I would love to see (an enrollment of) 250. I think we could handle that number, although we may have to add a few more teachers and another program or two," he said.

"Of course, we may have to expand classrooms and dormitories. We have enough room to accommodate a few more students, but not many. But we have the acreage to expand if we need to."

Brasel said he also would like to see greater growth in some of the academic and vocational programs, but only after ensuring the strength and stability of the present curriculum.

"We've been talking for a period of time about setting up a workforce training center which would allow us to move our welding and our automotive maintenance programs from (their present location) over at Howard College to this campus, which would give us a facility appropriate to our deaf students.

"But we need to make sure our workforce education and technology programs are strong. We don't want to add programs without making sure first that our existing programs are strong, with good solid numbers."

Brasel said that there are plans in place for an English language program, but that to date, there has not been enough demand to start it.

"That (the English language program) would include international students, and some of our deaf students who are struggling with English.

"I would also like to see our diagnostic center become nationally recognized, and I really think that will happen soon."

He said like most colleges, SWCID is constantly in need of money.

"We need to enhance the technology that we have, and always keep it current, if we're going to enable our students to find jobs. They need to be experienced with the technology that's out there in the world.

"Computers are good for three or four years, then they need to be replaced. So we catch up, then we fall behind, then we have to catch up again."

Student body president Gloria Padilla, speaking in ASL with O'Donnell acting as interpreter, said there are plans under way to help SWCID's efforts to catch up financially, at least in a small way, at SWCIDFest next weekend.

"We will have a couple of fundraisers to help us start a beachball program next year," she explained.

O'Donnell said that the fund-raisers are typical of activities around the campus, since SWCID is still very much a work in progress.

"When we look back at where we've been, and how we started, the improvements are pretty amazing."

© 2005