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Graduating During a Pandemic

Recent graduates who are deaf and hard of hearing have faced unique challenges as members of the Class of 2020 during COVID-19. High school and college seniors have missed out on traditions they’ve looked forward to and earned, including graduation.
Clockwise from top Left: Chelsea Reiser, Rachit Kumar, Megan Cantwell, Jack McConnell

Written By: Lisa A. Goldstein

Recent graduates who are deaf and hard of hearing have faced unique challenges as members of the Class of 2020 during COVID-19. High school and college seniors have missed out on traditions they’ve looked forward to and earned, including graduation. Factor in hearing loss, and their resilience is no surprise. Some graduates share what it’s been like.

Transition to Online Learning

Megan Cantwell’s senior year of high school certainly wasn’t what she expected. The Austin, Texas resident was able to have some sense of normalcy with online classes. Her small private school transitioned online via Google Meet. Classes were significantly shorter in duration with more independent learning. “Initially, there were some technical issues,” says Cantwell, “but over time it became easier.”

Extracurricular activities, on the other hand, couldn’t be replicated through the online environment. In advance of the regional fair, Cantwell qualified for the State Fair as well as the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) by winning the Best of Fair award. Unfortunately, both fairs were cancelled. But the work of finalists is being celebrated online, including Cantwell’s. And she appreciates her position. “I had the opportunity to attend two years ago and I feel so bad for the kids who qualified this year for the first time who are seniors,” she says.

Chelsea Reiser’s last year of college was significantly impacted, as everything was online. “I miss my friends, my professors, and my daily walks around campus,” she says. “However, Kennesaw State University has done an amazing job transferring everything online, and I have been able to continue on and complete my degree without any major challenges.” She did admit that with a lot of her classes on Zoom, it was hard to understand everything. The audio was intermittent, and focusing so hard meant getting tired easily. But she graduated as an English major and professional writing minor and hopes to get an entry level job in communications.

The lack of in-person interaction for Rachit Kumar meant having some difficulty connecting with professors and classmates. He says he was fortunate to have cooperative professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology who made themselves available through the crisis. “The hardest part of the semester was actually working as a teaching assistant [for two different courses],” he says. “Making sure the transition was as smooth and as fair to all of my students as possible was my top priority, and it was important to me to be as available and flexible as possible for them.”

Lack of Closure

COVID-19 basically canceled the end of Bridget Egan’s senior year of high school. The Lake Geneva, Wisconsin resident didn’t get to play her last soccer season or attend prom, and won’t be able to graduate on the original date. “It’s been pretty disappointing,” she says, “but I definitely think it’s way more important to quarantine to help save lives.” She’ll be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study computer science.

Jack McConnell, who lives in Atlanta, describes COVID-19 as throwing a curve ball to his senior year. The most lasting effect will be “never really having that final closure.”

In the case of Kumar, the GA Tech graduate, while there was no graduation ceremony, there was an online celebration. Students were able to submit a presentation describing their upcoming paths and accomplishments. Kumar now has a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and will be starting the medical school portion of his eight-year MD-PhD dual degree at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lessons Learned

These graduates are also learning more about their deafness. Cantwell, for example, has found different ways of understanding spoken language. “This includes plugging my FM [frequency modular] system to the computer and using the captioning on Google Meet,” she says. “I have also once again learned how important it is to advocate for myself and that most people don’t understand what it is like to be deaf. But if you say something like ‘I didn’t quite hear that, could you repeat that?’ they are usually more than willing to help.” She actually had to say this twice in an online interview for her summer internship with the city of Austin—which she ultimately landed, and is doing virtually, of course.

COVID-19 has also shown Cantwell some of the “benefits” of being deaf or hard of hearing. “Sometimes the joy is in the little things that you can do with assistive technology,” she says. “This unusual global situation has also given me confidence in that I have discovered that I can in fact be successful by relying on assistive technology, cochlear implants, and captioning in a fully online environment.”

Cantwell will be attending the University of Texas at Dallas to study speech-language pathology and audiology. “So that I can one day better serve the community [that is deaf and hard of hearing] which has given so much to me,” she says.

McConnell is forthright about his deafness. When he’s alone with someone wearing a mask, he tells them he is hard of hearing, wears hearing aids and reads lips. He also asks them to over-enunciate. Right now, he’s busy working with his foundation, 20/20 Hearing (www.2020hearing.org), which provides hearing care for people around the world. He also founded a company called Round Town Window Washing, a home services provider for properties across north Atlanta. In the fall, he’ll study entrepreneurship, leadership, and business at Georgia Tech.

Digital Yearbook

To recognize these graduates and their achievements, AG Bell launched a virtual yearbook (www.agbellvirtualyearbook.com/) so that the whole community can celebrate together.

In a letter to 2020 graduates, AG Bell wrote, “For many students, commencement will not be the tradition we’ve all come to expect. But every graduate deserves to be recognized! You give hope to parents whose children are just starting the journey to Listening and Spoken Language. And there are many people who played a role in your success who want to have the chance to recognize and congratulate you.”

Graduates were asked to share their story, a photo, and where it all happened. While not required, a video was also requested, because hearing them speak is what’s truly inspirational. As the letter said, “Talk about what you loved most about college, your plans for next year, or give that valedictorian speech you’ve been preparing—the floor is yours!”

The Joseph Rosenstein Memorial Scholarship Fund

Another way to recognize these graduates—or any students for that matter—is to donate to the Joseph Rosenstein Memorial Scholarship Fund (www.agbell.org/Donate). When Rosenstein passed away, he left AG Bell a generous bequest to establish a scholarship fund. Another organization has made a generous pledge to match up to $50,000 for the fund. To date, $20,000 has been raised.

The fund recognizes Rosenstein’s many contributions to helping students who are deaf and hard of hearing benefit from mainstream education, including years of advocacy work. The application for this scholarship will be integrated into AG Bell College Scholarship Program which opens in December 2020 and will benefit high-achieving college students who use Listening and Spoken Language.

For additional information and resources, please visit www.agbell.org.

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