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American Sign Language the catalyst for change for TCC alumna

Imagine trying to learn in a classroom when all you hear is silence.

This was the reality for Kelly Hernandez who graduated from Kellam High with a 2.9 GPA.

Earning her Career Studies Certificate in American Sign Language (ASL) at Tidewater Community College opened up her world.

“I used to cry every summer because I’d go to the beach and couldn’t communicate with anyone because of the wind and how we were sitting,” Hernandez said. “While I could speak and read lips, ASL opened a whole new world to me.”

Kelly Hernandez holding a graduation cap

In 2014, Hernandez, 25, earned her career studies certificate, discovering she could be successful in the classroom. “I actually picked up ASL very quickly. Once I had someone to practice with, it was much easier to gain the skills,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez’s TCC professors encouraged her to consider Gallaudet University for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The Washington, D.C. school welcomes students from across the United States and more than 25 countries with diverse background and interests. All teachers use ASL for the entire curriculum.

“I decided to focus on school because I didn’t want to struggle the rest of my life. At the time I was working three jobs just to make ends meet,” she said. “Before TCC college was out of the question, but the doors opened when I learned ASL. Coming to TCC was a turning point.”

Hernandez was among the older students at Gallaudet. She became the “mom” in her group, helping dorm mates focus on their studies. She says the workload was tough, but the environment amazing, giving her a new perspective on being part of the deaf community.

Hernandez graduated from Gallaudet in three years with a bachelor’s in education and a 3.9 GPA. She is now at Old Dominion University pursuing a master’s in special education with a focus on adaptive curriculum. “I’m at a large university and I have my own interpreter, so I can learn like everyone else,” she said.

The first in her family to earn a college degree, the Pungo native plans a career as a deaf education educator for Virginia Beach Public Schools. Her passion for teaching was sparked while working with young children and preschoolers at a Virginia Beach recreation center and area day care centers.

“I’m excited to be able to make an impact in the deaf community with my teaching,” she said. “For me, it was about finding the internal motivation and passion and limiting distractions. If I can do it, so can you.”

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