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A Conversation with Jenna Voss and Susan Lenihan, AG Bell’s New Chairs

AG Bell’s new chairs, Susan Lenihan, PhD, CED, and Jenna Voss, PhD, CED, LSLS Cert. AVEd, are entering their respective leaderships at an interesting time, to say the least.
Jenna Voss (left) and Susan Lenihan (right)

Written By: Rin-rin Yu

AG Bell’s new chairs, Susan Lenihan, PhD, CED, and Jenna Voss, PhD, CED, LSLS Cert. AVEd, are entering their respective leadership positions at an interesting time, to say the least. Both are professors of deaf education at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, and have worked so closely together for several years that they could finish each other’s sentences. Both are passionate about education for people who are deaf and hard of hearing and have been involved with AG Bell for nearly as long as their careers. Susan, who is the new chair of the AG Bell Association, has spent many years working on the Volta Review as a panelist and as an associate editor, and has helped plan the AG Bell Symposium. Jenna, who is the incoming chair of the AG Bell Academy, has served on that board and co-authored two texts, among other accomplishments.

At the Global Virtual Symposium earlier this summer, Susan and Jenna each presented their ideas to attendees (view Susan’s video and Jenna’s video). More recently, AG Bell talked with them over Zoom to discuss their backgrounds, memories of AG Bell events past, and their plans for AG Bell as chairs.

AG Bell: So, what inspired you to pursue education for the deaf and hard of hearing?

Susan Lenihan: I didn’t have any family who was deaf or other similar stories that you hear about. My sister was studying speech language pathology here at Fontbonne and I met with the advisor of the deaf education program. She said, you need to get to St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf. So I volunteered with the art teacher. I loved the experience, and I was sold and committed. It’s been 40-plus years.

Jenna Voss: I’m a copycat of Susan. I, too, spent time at a summer program at St. Joseph while I was in high school. There was a sibling camp for kids who were deaf and their siblings, with a theater theme. I was in charge of the art enrichment. It took five seconds of being around these teachers and these kids to say, yup, this is it. Teaching was always in the back of my mind, but this was teaching, and language, and communication and magic.

I met with Susan in the cafeteria above the gym at Fontbonne and the rest is history.

AG Bell: Before, you know, the pandemic and its impacts, what time of year did you look most forward to at AG Bell?

Jenna: It has always been the convention/symposium. The magic is the social connective element. This year was different but it was still there. Obviously, the professional development is phenomenally important, but it’s the people who are drawn and committed to the same goal. Former colleagues, students, vendors, adults who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Susan: I would agree, going to the symposium and seeing so many graduates of our program working in deaf education all over the country and world is really a great opportunity.

Jenna: Reunion!

AG Bell: Any fond memories?

Jenna: Meeting Mildred Oberkotter. I can tell you where I was standing in the exhibit hall when I met her.

Susan: A convention in Snowbird, Utah. AG Bell had unveiled a film that really captured the family stories and how professionals working with families could make a huge difference. During the unveiling of this film, the energy was amazing. There was a balcony with all these people there, collaborative excitement of moving forward.

Jenna: One of my first conventions was in St. Louis and I was being introduced to the people who wrote our textbooks. The Carol Flexers and Don Goldbergs. Now my fond memories are the networking that happened at the fire pit at the end of the night in Arizona. Swimming in the pool and eating grapes with Jane Madell.

Fontbonne students and alumni in attendance at the 19th Annual Meeting: March 8-10, 2020 in Kansas City, MO

AG Bell: Turning to board matters. What are some plans you have as chairs?

Jenna: For AG Bell Academy, we’d like to make the certification process more efficient. I remember sitting in a large ballroom filling out a Scan-Tron sheet with glitchy lighting overhead. We want the hard and challenging part to be in the learning, not the paperwork. A longer goal is to keep learning and listening to the challenges to certification for those who want it globally so we’re not so US or Europe or English-centric. The Spanish language exam will come out soon.

Susan: We’ve been working with Catharine McNally on a strategic plan. We’ve been talking about increasing the number of professionals who are very involved in the association. This year, we had over 900 people engaged which is a great jumping off point to more virtual things globally, particularly since those in education may not have a lot of money to attend conferences with hotels and airfare. We also want to continue expanding our international focus. For me, I want to work on Volta Review, maintaining its quality and improving its accessibility for more people.

Jenna: There is a responsibility for us to keep noticing who else needs to be at the table and to step into the leadership skills. I have phenomenal mentors who keep pulling out a chair for me. Not everyone has a Susan Lenihan in their back pocket.

AG Bell: Who does need to be at the table?

Jenna: Besides the usual suspects and phenomenal Listening and Spoken Language practitioners, we want people who may just be dipping their toes in the water, or who are teaching children using other strategies and other linguistic modalities. When we invite them, there is plenty for them to learn and take back out.

Susan: I want to know that every teacher and speech language pathologist is tapping into AG Bell. The whole board and organization want all families to know about the resources and opportunities through an AG Bell membership. I don’t know if we made that yet.

Jenna: We also want to give more opportunities for people to be on committees and see if it could lead to board leadership.

Jenna: I also think we want a professional workforce that matches the families we serve. People with different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and the global focus will help with that.

Susan: There’s a real commitment to making resources available to global partners around the world.

AG Bell: How does this pandemic change your plans?

Susan: Before the pandemic, Jenna and I were already using Zoom to teach a cohort of students in the northeast. With AG Bell, we started using Zoom for some meetings already which made the transition easier. AG Bell was quick to shift the symposium to a virtual setting, and they were very smart and thoughtful on how to do it. They found the best technological support so that excellent content could be provided.

Jenna: We also need to recognize inequalities in our profession and address and support diversity. It’s an opportunity to figure out how to rebuild collectively. For example, going to virtual coaching in family centered intervention. We already know how to connect with parents. It was harder for other disciplines.

Susan: I am worried about the children in schools and online learning. It’s even more challenging for children who may not have the best quality sound coming through their computers and may not have parents with flexibility to provide support during online learning. I’m hoping for a vaccine soon.

Jenna: There’s no better time than now for us to be leaders and to harness technology in an innovative way. We can be ready, if we know what’s worked before.

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