When juniors Katie Clifton and Jacob LeVasseur started their sign language club at Eastern Nazarene College during their freshman year, they had no idea the concept would blossom into a class for the community at large.
Clifton and LeVasseur have not only stared a sign language club for other ENC students, but have created and expanded an after-school children’s sign language class and will be starting a similar one for adults this fall.
“I thought it would probably taper out and die after the end of our first year, maybe have four to five of our friends regularly enough to learn some sign language,” Clifton said. “But we have six people on our waiting list and 20 in our [children’s] class already. I can’t believe it’s exploded this big. We had no idea it would get like this.”
According to Clifton, the children’s class began after their adviser, Marianna Krejci-Papa, an English professor at ENC, suggested there might be a need for it.
Before long, the class of 5- to 13-year olds had 11 students that showed up weekly, learning sign language vocabulary, signing the words to songs, practicing the alphabet, even playing games.
Now that the duo has started advertising more widely, the children’s class has grown to 20 students, with more hoping to join if a student drops out.
"Mainly the whole goal was to start them early if it sounded interesting as a hobby, but some do have deaf relatives that they want to communicate with," LeVasseur said.
As for the adult class, it's an expansion of that initial opportunity.
"It's just people who have always wanted to learn it. I don’t know why they want to learn it, but we’re just offering it so everyone can be included," he said.
“We had some of the parents of those children saying we wished we had some classes for adults, so the expansion has been to offer an adult class, so we’re trying that adventure,” Clifton said.
“We thought that would be good, nice to let some children experience what we did when we were kids. It was almost an experiment … now we’re branching out bringing sign language to the community and to our school,” Clifton said.
The adult class already has 12 participants, and will be capped at 15. There is a $5 suggested donation for the children’s class and a $10 suggested donation for the adults.
Although there is no sign language major or even sign classes at ENC, LeVasseur and Clifton have tried expanding their own knowledge in other ways to continue to teach the class.
“My mom taught me some sign language when I was growing up, although there’s no one deaf in my family. For me, it has always a hobby, but it’s become more and more important to me - we sign in chapel on campus, and I took classes this summer in Pennsylvania where I live to further my education,” LeVasseur said.
Clifton, too, said working with the club has made her increasingly more advanced. When she started, she knew only phrases and some words, now, she’s conversational, she said.
The rapid expansion of the program has increased the possibility for future growth for the club as well, and LeVasseur and Clifton are not short on ideas.
“We’re going to have to expand the kid’s class … We also want to see the interest of the adults class first before expanding that – but so far it’s been overwhelming,” LeVasseur said.
Current sophomores John Cahill, and Melanie Marchetti will take over the club once LeVasseur and Clifton leave, continuing the program for what will hopefully be years to come.
Already, the new pair has helped teach some of the children’s classes. Their roles will become increasingly more important as time progresses, Clifton said.
“They are dedicated and hard working. I think they will do very well,” she said.
As for what teaching the class might mean for Clifton and LeVasseur themselves, there’s a possibility that this opportunity might just spur them on to things in the future.
“It could always be something more once I graduate,” LeVasseur said. “It’s [all] very exciting.”