When Adela Garcia moved to Pullman in western Michigan, she was 10, deaf from birth and had never seen American Sign Language.
To communicate in her Spanish-speaking world, she used gestures and a sign language that only her family understood. Eleven years later, Garcia, 21, has a 3.8 grade point average and a letter of admission to Gallaudet University, the world's only liberal arts college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. She's in Washington, D.C., at the university's English Language Institute, honing her English so she can tackle her freshman year of classes. But staying in school has been one challenge after another.
Days before the spring semester started, Garcia lost the grant that was supposed to pay for her English classes. She told the Free Press through an interpreter that she was disappointed, but determined to stay positive.
Back in Michigan, her teachers in the Van Buren Intermediate School District were stunned -- they said coming back to Pullman would mean fewer post-high school opportunities. So, in the span of two weeks in January, Garcia's teachers turned to Facebook and raised more than $12,000 to make up for the grant and get her into that spring semester.
On Jan. 25, the last day her fees could be paid, Garcia learned she could attend her spring semester English classes. That day, she posted a video message that was captioned to the people on Facebook who helped her stay in school. "Hello, I'm here in class," she signed, smiling broadly, with subtitles below. "Finally for raised money for college. Thank you so much to everyone. Love you all."
One of Garcia's first teachers, Amy Fleischmann, said the young woman is not only the first person in her family to go to college, but the first to graduate from the district's program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Lawrence. She teared up as she described why she and Garcia's other teachers turned to friends and strangers to help pay for their student's future.
"We see such potential in her and we know she can do it," said Fleishmann, "There's not opportunity for her here. She's paving the way."
Starting at square one
On Garcia's first day of school, Fleishmann and her other teachers were challenged -- the little girl had spent several years in Mexican schools with no services for deaf people. She not only had to learn American Sign Language (ASL) to take any course from math to history, but she also had to learn English, upon which ASL was based.
"We pretty much started at square one," said Fleischmann, now a teacher consultant with the Van Buren Intermediate School District.
Garcia, who was born in Washington, moved to Mexico with her mother when she was very young. After returning to Michigan, she was eager to learn. Through things like cooking and scrapbooking, she started learning English words and the signs that went with them. But every night, she went home to Spanish. To keep English fresh in her mind, she said, she watched television with closed captioning on. She studied in the evenings. And, slowly, English began to click.
"The first year of school, I did not understand anything," said Garcia in sign language. "Once I learned how to communicate and express myself, it really skyrocketed."
There isn't a lot to do in Pullman, said Garcia. The unincorporated community is in Lee Township, about halfway between Allegan and South Haven.
It's a one-intersection settlement, said Allegan County Clerk Joyce Watts, and in the most agriculturally-rich county in Michigan, Garcia's area is an exception. "Lee Township has some of the most beautiful lakes," said Watts, "but it's clay. It's not good farmland."
Yet the area is attractive to both poor and rich people, because of nearly nonexistent property taxes and building codes. Chicago retirees live next to lifelong Pullmanites who live next to farm workers in an area that lacks a centralized water system.
"You have very marginal dwellings and very beautiful homes," Watts said.
Garcia said for fun, kids play in the woods and go to the mall. But not many kids from her area go to college, and with limited options in Pullman as a deaf person, her teachers decided it was time to expand her horizons.
An opportunity came to visit Gallaudet during her junior year, and Garcia and four others in the program for deaf students raised the money to hop a plane to the nation's capital. She wasn't sure what Washington, D.C., was going to be like, but she was ready for the chance to explore.
At Gallaudet, Garcia was entranced. She said everywhere she went, hands were flying, and in the gestures, she could understand what was going on.
"I walked in and was like, there were so many deaf people signing -- the teachers, the students -- it was a dream come true," she said.
Fleischmann said the visit was a one-of-a-kind experience for the students.
"It opened the student's eyes to options outside of our small town," she said. "The kids were able to go to Subway and order their sandwiches because everyone signed."
And Garcia was hooked. Back in Pullman, she continued to study, baby-sitting her nieces and nephews while her older siblings worked. In her senior year, she applied for undergraduate admission with the goal of studying graphic art and design. She was accepted, but conditionally. Her English still wasn't strong enough to do college work, the university said, despite the strides she'd made. To get to that level of English proficiency, she needed more English classes and decided to enroll in Gallaudet's English Language Institute. At the end of the summer, she bid Michigan farewell and moved into a dorm in Washington, D.C., to study English all day, nearly every day.
Gallaudet's English Language Institute has five levels of study students go through to master English, said Ali Sanjabi, a operations staff member at the school. Garcia tested at Level Three and must pass Level Five to have the best chances of scoring well on the ACT and Gallaudet's proficiency exams.
Students take anywhere from one semester to three years to master enough English and American Sign Language to be able to do college work, Sanjabi said. Garcia said she hoped to be done in two semesters and finished her first in December, going from Level Three to Level Four. That's when she lost the funding.
Fleischmann said the vocational agency that gave her the grant didn't feel she was progressing fast enough, even though she was only one level from proficiency as the spring semester started.
"It was like the rug was pulled out from under her. It was just obstacle after obstacle," said Fleischmann.
She and Rebecca Sidders, another teacher, said they couldn't let Garcia come home. So the women reached out to everyone they knew on Facebook. They shared her story and encouraged her to post to the page. The money started coming in.
One of her donors was Jacqueline Deneau, 62, of Hartford. After seeing Garcia's video in her Facebook feed, she decided to donate to the young woman, even though she didn't know her.
"This girl is trying so hard to get educated," said Deneau. "I just had compassion for what she's gone through."
As they reached the $10,000 mark with just a day or two spare, there was another setback. The grant had been pulled before all her fall payments had been made. In addition to the $10,000 for spring tuition, there was suddenly a bill for $2,000 more in fall payments.
Sidders and Fleischmann made one final plea, and people from Michigan to Oregon and everywhere between pitched in.
Garcia's last bill was paid. She went to class and her teachers were able to relax. Garcia, their first graduate, was back to learning and living in a world she has made so much bigger than those few hand gestures from when she was 10.
"She's had to adapt so much," said Fleischmann. "It was a little overwhelming. For her to be -- 11 years later -- college bound, is really amazing."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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