American Sign Language degree offered at FSU

Framingham State University is now offering the first bachelor’s degree in American Sign Language (ASL) at a Massachusetts public university.

The major offers two concentrations – ASL/English interpreting and Deaf studies.

Classes began this fall and are conducted primarily in ASL, said Luce Aubry, assistant professor of ASL.

Andrew Byrne, assistant professor of ASL, said, “It’s really essential for a program like this to have someone who is Deaf and uses ASL as their first language to provide instruction and academic support for students who are trying to become confident.”

He added, “When these students then go out into the real world, they have that first-hand experience working with Deaf people to bring to the table.”

Annie Nitzche, a sophomore, said ASL will be helpful to her in her criminology major.

“I’ve always been really interested in ASL. … So, I took an intro class, and now I definitely want to do [a minor] because I love the professor. He’s actually Deaf, and it’s really helpful being taught by a Deaf person. It intensifies the class,” she said.

The program received approval in late May and was announced by the University in a press release on June 30.

Aubrey added, “We kind of missed the boat on getting word out to high school seniors, but a few people had known it was coming, so I have 12 new students coming in and three returning students, so 15.”

Scott Greenberg, associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of continuing education, said, “What we’re hoping for is that the numbers increase as a result of offering the entire degree program at Framingham State’s campus.”

The initial program began in 2014 when a partnership between FSU and Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill was created to offer a bachelor’s degree in ASL.

Linda Vaden-Goad, vice president for academic affairs, said classes were held by FSU instructors on NECC’s campus. The classes were available to graduates of ASL associate degree programs from the state’s community colleges and FSU students who wanted to pursue ASL.

“What we found over time was that students from all over our region wanted a public school option,” she said. NECC’s location, approximately one hour north of FSU, was inconvenient for students and faculty coming from Framingham and the surrounding areas.

Moving to Framingham also brings the program less than one mile from The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC), located on Central Street.

TLC provides services to Deaf children and adults. In a Facebook post reacting to the announcement, a representative said, “We’re fortunate to have this program in our backyard.”

Vaden-Goad said TLC is an important partner in this endeavor, adding it could lead to summer programming and internships.

Marc Cote, dean of arts and humanities, said having the program on campus “says a lot about accessibility and inclusion. With more students taking classes, there will be a greater appreciation for the Deaf community.”

Dana Fox, a freshman early childhood education major, said, “I love it.  My mom was an education major here, too, and took ASL, and we were just talking about how it’s really cool because I could teach Deaf kids if I wanted to.”

Erin Corcoran, a senior who initially enrolled in an ASL course this semester, said, “It was just too much for me to handle. … To learn an entire new language by the end of a semester, it felt like five classes in one.”

Greenberg said, “This is the kind of degree that not many colleges are offering.”

Framingham is now one of 18 public universities on the national College Board website recognized as offering a four-year major in ASL.

[Editor’s Note: Andrew Byrne’s interview was conducted with an interpreter, Drew Pidkameny.]

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