Program Housing Spotlight: Sign Language House
After a mandatory first year of living in often crowded, loud, and (in the case of the Butterfields) just plain depressing dormitories, the option to apply to one of the University’s 24 designated Program Houses can be quite appealing. These alternative forms of housing offer students the opportunity to live with other students who share their particular academic interests, vocational pursuits, cultural affiliations, hobbies, or global concerns. Program Houses are generally affiliated with an academic department or student organization, and, in many instances, offer outreach to the community of Greater Middletown along with distinctive programming for interested students on campus.
Just off High Street at 64 Lawn Avenue sits Sign Language House, Wesleyan University’s first official program house, established in 1988. The three-story Folk Victorian building boasts eight residents: five sophomores and three juniors, including House Manager Eric Stephen ’13.
“I was really interested in American Sign Language (ASL) in high school, but I was also really interested in disability rights work,” Stephen said. “It seemed like Sign House was just an obvious choice for me.”
The residents of the House are few in number, which has helped to create a close-knit community of students committed to programming and community outreach.
“Because there are so few people, we’ve become like a family,” said Emily Dowie ’13, a Sign Language House resident. “It’s nice interacting with the same people everyday [who are] brought together by a mutual interest in…sign language [and] disability rights.”
Since its inception, Sign Language House’s primary goal has been to spread awareness of deaf culture to the Wesleyan community. This mission has had a modicum of success this year—last semester, two students from the University had internships working with children at American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut.
“It’s really cool that we’re so close to a very well established institution of deaf culture and that we have this community within reach, because we can very easily become involved, more easily than students at a lot of other schools,” Stephen said.
Over the years, Sign Language House has broadened its horizons to champion rights for individuals with other disabilities. This has expanded the possibilities for service learning and community outreach.
“We’ve branched out into the broader topic of disability rights, so anyone interested in that tends to gravitate to our house,” Stephen said. “We’ve been currently working to make the university accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities.”
Director of User and Technical Services Karen Warren, became a first-year staff advisor for Sign House after working closely with the residents last year.
“I came to Wesleyan in 2008 after fifteen years at American School for the Deaf (ASD),” Warren said. “I wanted to retain my connection to sign language and the deaf community and culture. A former resident of Sign House explained to me about Program Houses, and, after I got myself acclimated in my position, I contacted Residential Life and connected with last year’s house manager Allegra Stout [’12].”
The Sign Language House is involved with many activities that engage the University’s community with deaf culture. One such activity was a visit from a deaf professional who spoke with a small group of students about his upbringing and the cultural and political issues affecting the deaf community. Sign Language House also sponsors weekly ASL conversation workshops that are open to the entire campus.
“One of the larger activities Sign House sponsored last year was to bring a screening of the movie ‘Universal Signs’ to the Goldsmith Family Cinema,” Warren stated. “We hosted the filmmaker and screenwriter, who held an FAQ with the audience following the screening. The event attracted film students as well as ASL students and was a big success.”
Warren and Stephen are planning several more events this semester. Both are working to bring a deaf linguist and ASL specialist to campus for a workshop, and hope to hold a video conference with students at ASD and Gallaudet University, a school primarily for the hearing impaired in Washington, D.C.
“Eric and I are [also] working with the CFA and hope to bring the National Theater for the Deaf [NTD] to campus in 2011 or 2012,” Warren added. “This is very exciting as NTD has a national reputation and appeals to both hearing and deaf audiences.”
The students at Sign Language House are few in number compared to other Program Houses, but this fact has not diminished their dedication, or their plans for the future.
“I would say that living in Sign House is a commitment,” Dowie reflected. “You have to participate in programs and be enthusiastic and dedicated, but if you do commit yourself…it will be one of [your] most significant experiences at Wesleyan.”