May 7, 2019 / Childhood friendship spurs Vincennes University student to pursue American Sign Language and Deaf Studies degree

Rachel Neff photo

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Imagine a couple of 7-year-old friends laughing, playing, and frolicking around, but they can’t communicate with each other.

There’s a language barrier. One friend is deaf. One friend is hearing.

This was a very real scenario for Vincennes University student Rachel Neff. She was the hearing friend.

“We loved to hang out together, but I didn’t know sign language,” Neff says. “We both were frustrated 7-year-olds. We were frustrated that we couldn’t communicate with each other.”

Fast-forward to a teenage Neff, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Offered the opportunity to learn American Sign Language as a home-schooled high school student, she jumped at the chance.

“That lit a fire,” she says. “I just really loved it. It became a passion.”

The strong interest led her to enroll in the VU American Sign Language and Deaf Studies program, a fully immersive educational environment located on the campus of the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis. VU ASL and Deaf Studies faculty are deaf and they are native signers of American Sign Language.

Neff chose VU’s program because she wanted a fully immersive environment and she has thrived in it.

She will complete an associate degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies this week at Commencement on May 9 at the Indiana School for the Deaf.

Neff has the highest grade point average among the Class of 2019 graduates.

Dr. Cynthia Sanders, chair of VU’s ASL and Deaf Studies program, recognized Neff’s potential early. She was her first deaf teacher.

“I knew from day one she would excel in her learning,” Sanders says. “Rachel is a very well-rounded student who is very motivated in learning ASL and socializing with Deaf people.”

VU ASL and Deaf Studies students learn and interact with native signers. This aspect was one of the main reasons Neff was attracted to the program.

“It was definitely a little scary at first,” Neff says. “All my professors here are Deaf. I definitely feel like I’m getting a fantastic education through the immersion. It helps you grow significantly faster and build up that skill set. You are not allowed to talk. As a student, you learn to work around your lack of vocabulary. You gesture. You write it. You work together. That builds more than just language skills. It builds people skills. It also gives you more cultural awareness and experience.”

The next step in turning her passion for ASL into a professional career is earning a baccalaureate degree from IUPUI in ASL/English Interpreting. Neff hasn’t decided what area of interpreting she wants to pursue, although she is interested in the medical field.

“She overcame many challenges with a positive attitude,” Sanders says. “Her passion working with Deaf people prevails through her academic performance and socialization with deaf people in the community. These qualities are a perfect stepping stone for her to pursue her studies as an interpreter at IUPUI. I am delighted that she accomplished a lot in a very short time and is ready to move on to creating a new chapter - to be a professional interpreter with Deaf people in the community.”

VU American Sign Language and Deaf Studies program


American Sign Language and Deaf Studies is an intensive two-year program designed to prepare students to pursue a baccalaureate degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies interpreting or provide for a foundation in careers that serve deaf individuals. The program is located on the campus of the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis, and faculty are deaf and native signers who have taken intensive training in teaching. The curriculum provides for full immersion through learning-centered instruction both inside and outside the classroom. The unique location of the program allows for involvement and collaboration with deaf students and the vibrant Deaf Community of Indianapolis.


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