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Something To Talk About

American Sign Language class brings college athletes, local deaf children together

By Jeff Vrabel

Stony Brook student-athletes use their sign language skills with students from Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf. STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY PHOTO

College athletes stage meet-and-greets with young students all the time, but it’s rare that the athletes are the nervous ones.

That was the case in August, when student-athletes from Stony Brook University in New York met with 30 students from nearby Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf. Stony Brook is home to a summer sign language course that has proved popular for college athletes — of 37 students in last summer’s class, nine played football, and one was on the track team. Adjunct instructor Melissa Pendergast-Scriven took an opportunity to give the athletes in her class some real-world experience and the deaf school students an up-close look at college sports.

“Sports brings people together regardless of any other circumstance,” Pendergast-Scriven says. “Who doesn’t like to toss a ball around? It really let people put their guard down.”

The Mill Neck students dropped by the Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium after football practice to play catch and converse with the players; they were invited back for a Stony Brook football game. “The kids who came had smiles plastered on their faces for the entire visit,” Pendergast-Scriven says.

Wide receiver Pat D’Amato, a business major, freely admits he was a bundle of nerves. “I worried they’d be signing real fast, asking things I didn’t know. But we were able to have basic conversations with them,” he says. “I remember being that age and looking up to athletes, so it was great to have them come out and play a little football.”

Pendergast-Scriven’s 12-week course has attracted many student-athletes. More than 250 Seawolves have fulfilled their foreign language requirement through the American Sign Language program since the class began in 2000.

Shawn Heilbron, Stony Brook’s director of athletics, says it’s more than a language course. “Our athletes get an appreciation for what it means to not just learn the language but live with it as your primary language,” Heilbron says. “It’s more interactive than most. And athletes by nature are competitive, so anytime you can get them moving and engaged in group work, they tend to thrive.”

The popularity of the class among athletes comes largely from positive word-of-mouth; D’Amato signed on after hearing about it so much. “I’m a more visual learner, so it’s easier for me to pick up on this than try to remember vocab words.”

Pendergast-Scriven says the class is designed to teach the art of communication. “It’s disappearing,” she says. “Looking at someone, having conversations, that’s all gone. You’re constantly behind a screen. With ASL, the visual component is essential. If you’re not fully involved, you’re not communicating.”

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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