Baylor grads share passion for deaf community

Gulfport, Miss., senior Starry Smith signs,“Baylor alumni — where are they now?”  She has completed American Sign Language classes 1-4 at Baylor.Hannah Neumann | Staff Writer
Gulfport, Miss., senior Starry Smith signs,“Baylor alumni — where are they now?” She has completed American Sign Language classes 1-4 at Baylor.
Hannah Neumann | Staff Writer

By Hannah Neumann
Staff Writer

Three Baylor graduates following separate career paths and living in three different parts of the world have two things in common — a passion for the deaf community and an attribution to Baylor for their success.

Dr. Serena Johnson, a 2008 alumna, said she knew from the time she was in the third grade she wanted to be a teacher. When she took American Sign Language as a language credit in high school, she fell in love and began her journey in the deaf education and searched for a university to aid her in her career choice.

“I decided I wanted to be a teacher of the deaf, so when I was looking at schools, one of my criteria was that the school had to offer deaf education as a major,” Johnson said. “I came to Baylor and I fell in love with the campus and the people and I knew this was where God needed me to be.”

Johnson said she started immediately on the deaf education track and attributed her success at Baylor to its teachers and the internships they provided to students in the major.

“Working with the teachers was just truly phenomenal,” Johnson said. “Other than that, what really set Baylor’s program over the top was the fact that I interned at the Texas School for the Deaf. There’s nothing like that experience.”

Johnson said a large part of Baylor’s success in the program was preparation for students in the field. Particularly by having deaf faculty members.

“Having a deaf person on staff really helps you understand the deaf view of education and of life in general,” Johnson said. “When you’re teaching a group of people and you’re not in that group, it’s really important that you have their perspective. By Baylor having deaf faculty in their program, it really allows deaf people to have input in the training of the people who are going to be working with their population and I think that’s really important.”

After Baylor, Johnson went on to receive her master’s degree in literacy and English as a second language. She received a Ph.D. in higher education with her dissertation focusing on deaf children in community college.

“Now I work as the director of education at a nonprofit that benefits deaf and hard-of-hearing people,” Johnson said. “I’m responsible for developing and implimenting adult basic education curriculum for our deaf consumers as they come here.”

Jennifer Bacak also had a passion for American Sign Language but entered Baylor on different terms. Bacak came to Baylor in 1993 as a communications disorders major before the deaf education program was implemented. She said one of the reasons she chose the track was because only speech majors could take American Sign Language, which she was interested in doing.

“I took ASL my very first semester with Lori Wrzesinski and she was my teacher all the way through,” Bacak said. “She taught me to sign and I just ate it up. I picked it up quickly, I fell in love with it and I knew that I wanted to use it in some way.”

Bacak said in her second semester of the language, a deaf student joined Baylor’s campus and Bacak was hired as a social interpreter.

“They hired me during Welcome Week and other social events that she needed an interpreter for,” Bacak said. “So I started interpreting really quickly and I really enjoyed it.”

Bacak said she became fluent and was hired to interpret classes during her final years at Baylor, providing her more experience than most students studying communication disabilities would have at that point in their path.

“I became really capable as an interpreter so as soon as I graduated, I took my test and became a certified interpreter,” Bacak said. “I didn’t pursue graduate school because I already knew what I wanted to do.”

After having two children, she and her husband decided to adopt. They adopted two children domestically and then Ella, a deaf child from Ghana who lived in extreme poverty.

“She was deprived of language her whole life,” she said. “When we found her, she had very little language, but she’s a really bright girl so she picked up ASL really quickly and I was able to teach her because of the skills I have, along with teaching my husband and my children, and now it’s the language of our home.”

Aside from adopting Ella, deaf culture and community have remained a part of Bacak’s life, she said.

“We started a deaf church here in town and we minister to all of the deaf in the area,” Bacak said. “We have deaf church every week and organize deaf socials and try to provide as much of that as we can. Our life is just really entrenched in the deaf world now.”

Bacak said she got back in touch with Wrzesinski after all of this to thank her and share with her what a tremendous impact her teaching had on Bacak’s life.

“Lori taught me to sign and without those skills, our life would look drastically different right now,” Bacak said. “And Ella’s life would look drastically different. I’ve seen parents really struggle to learn enough sign language to communicate with their child and I already have that ability because of my experience at Baylor.”

In Honduras, Jessie Fox, a 2008 alumna, is using her knowledge from the program to change the lives of deaf individuals through an organization called Signs of Love.

“The deaf are treated poorly here,” Fox said. “It can be anything from them being locked in a cage and having never worn clothes in their life, to just functioning as a household slave, or even just being ignored by everyone.”

Fox said part of the Signs of Love organization’s goal is just to spread awareness and to define the deaf to the community and their families and help the hearing realize the deaf community’s equality.

“We try to empower the families and let them know that their child has value not only to society and to us, but that they are valued by God and that their lives mean something,” she said.

When she first began to communicate with the deaf children, Fox said most had very little means of communication and those that did thought their role in society would never be greater than the duties of a household slave.

“A lot of our deaf kids here were never taught that their opinion matters and that their thoughts matter,” Fox said. “We don’t want them to just know how to ask for water, we want to know who they are and what their dreams are and to help them achieve them.”

But before there was Signs of Love, Fox visited Honduras on a mission trip as a student at Baylor during her sophomore year where a seed for helping others was planted.

“That’s one thing I really liked about Baylor,” Fox said. “The general atmosphere of valuing people and having a heart for people was something that Baylor really instilled in me during my time there.”