For many traditional first-year students and incoming transfer students, their most pressing concerns are figuring out the NC State Wolfline schedule and distinguishing one brick building from the endless rows of seemingly identical brick buildings. When Lisa Fowler arrived on NC State’s campus for the first time, she had these concerns as well as other challenges. Along with the many hurdles that nontraditional students face when returning to school, Lisa, who is also a proud mother of 3 and grandmother of 8, is Deaf and fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Fowler, who now considers NC State her second home, recalls, “I was proud and excited to come to NC State to accomplish my dream to obtain a college degree. When I first arrived on campus, I was little overwhelmed for a few weeks. It really helped that the NC State staff was so friendly and helpful. They made me feel comfortable to ask questions and to ask for anything that I need help with.”
Though Fowler and her experience at NC State are unique, many students struggle with some of the same obstacles that she had to face while obtaining her BSW (Bachelor of Social Work degree), which she successfully completed in May of 2018. “I am a nontraditional student and, of course, my experiences tend to be different than most of the students here [at NC State]. I am used to being different from others, so it is not an issue for me [feeling different] on campus. One example of this is when I get sick and cannot make to the class” Fowler said. Whereas other students can miss a class, typically without communicating with their instructor, Fowler “had to email the teacher, the disability office, and my interpreter. It is a pain in the butt but it makes me think twice before I decide to skip a class. I have to decide if missing the class is worth the effort it takes to notify everyone [of my absence].” In addition to these challenges, she also struggled with “trying to keep up with the fast pace of classes and how to use the computer. I learned to overcome my feeling of inferiority among smart, young, [technologically savvy] students. I became more self-confident when I realized that I could contribute to the classroom when I shared my life experiences with the class,” she said of her challenges at NC State.
Due to the rare combination of Fowler being not only a Deaf student, but also a non-traditional, working student with children, the Department of Social Work invited Fowler and other student and campus representatives to speak and share their unique narratives during the Fall 2017 Diversity Education Week (DEW) Program, Presentation on Deaf Culture and Student-Led Panel Discussion. The student-led panel followed a presentation and introduction to Deaf Culture by Jeffrey N. Greer, Deaf Services Specialist for the NC Division for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (NC DHHS). Greer discussed what it means to be Deaf/hearing impaired, and what it is like for a Deaf person living in a hearing world. He also discussed differences in Deaf populations who use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate (ASL natives, pre-lingual Deaf individuals, and post-lingual Deaf individuals), and the developmental importance of introducing children who are Deaf or hearing impaired to sign language as early as possible so as not to delay language/cognitive development.
“I feel that I finally have a voice to speak out about the struggles of getting interpreting services for extracurricular activities. I have to say that I appreciate the fact that NC State are making an effort to continue to improve the services for students living with disability” said Fowler of the DEW program experience which she also described as one of the highlights of her time in the BSW program.
Fowler’s interest in pursuing a career as a social worker began with her experience with a single social worker. “I had a social worker working with me when my children were small,” she recounts. “The social worker helped me to buy a house. She set up an appointment with real estate agent, and we went house hunting for weeks. When I finally got my key for my house, it was the best feeling to be a homeowner.” Fowler, who knew first-hand the difference that one social worker can make in the lives of their clients, knew that she had found her calling.
Her desire to make a difference was clear to others as well. “From our first meeting, it was clear that Lisa really had a passion for social work and was ready to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Paige Moore, Academic Advising Coordinator for the Department of Social Work. “Though her circumstances were unique and at times challenging, she never allowed any obstacles to keep her from succeeding and achieving her dreams.”
Given that Fowler knows the daily obstacles that the Deaf community faces, her area of interest is working with Deaf populations, but she wants to specialize in working with those who are learning to live with mental health illnesses. As she approached her required BSW field practicum, which gives students firsthand experience with the backbone of the social work profession, Fowler worked closely with BSW Field Coordinator, Professor Barbara Zelter, to find a field placement that not only interested Fowler, but was also an environment where she could communicate primarily in ASL without the constant assistance of an interpreter.
“I was an intern at RHA Mental Behavioral Services in the Raleigh office. I shadowed my mentor when she met with Deaf clients with mental health issues. RHA provides many services to clients including therapy, help with finding a place to live, helping clients sign up for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, transporting them to doctor appointment and making sure that they have an ASL interpreter for those appointments” said Fowler of her field experience.
Zelter, who continues to stay in contact with Fowler, said the following of working with her, “Lisa’s upbeat, positive, can-do personality has brought her through our BSW program and into our MSW program. For her BSW internship, she served people in the deaf and hard of hearing community and was supervised by an MSW clinician who is also deaf–just the right match for Lisa. She was highly regarded by agency staff and proved she can take her life experience and turn it into excellent social work professionalism. We are so proud of Lisa’s hard work, determination, and inspirational dedication to those who have challenges like her own.”
Looking back and thinking about her undergraduate degree at NC State, one of Fowler feels one of her favorite experiences was attending the Homecoming concerts with her children. When asked about her advice to other students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing about your college experience, Fowler urges them “not to give up and just keep going to class even if you are failing or having a hard time in class and to ask for tutorial help. Set up an appointment with the teacher to meet them in the office for one to one attention to discuss the difficulties in assignments.” She also has advice for new students.? “My advice to the new students is to come to campus several times before the school opens to become familiar with the campus. Otherwise, they would get lost and become frustrated in hot weather in August and in cold weather in January. Secondly, it would be beneficial to meet the department staff to know who to ask for help or where to get the help for anything.”
Lisa’s story doesn’t end there however. Now, as a graduate with a BSW, Fowler has not forgotten her experience with NC State’s Department of Social Work and is currently enrolled in graduate-level social work classes as an Advanced Standing Masters of Social Work (MSW) student. “The Department of Social Work has amazing staff who are accessible anytime if I need to talk or ask for help. They treat me the same as everyone else. I never felt that I was being singled out or treated differently just because I am Deaf,” said Fowler. Additionally, she adds that she “wish[es] that the students would appreciate themselves more and also, realize that they take things for granted…there are people out there that are struggling to lead a normal life despite their disabilities. [Fellow Students] can show more respect and compassion to people that are ‘different’ from them.”
Now, as a graduate student, she says that she is “looking forward to my internship. I learn the best when I am in the field and get to meet with clients.” Fowler says that her “professional goals are to become a Social Worker in mental health field and working with people in Deaf community. I would like to advocate for better access to services for Deaf people and for hearing people to better understand of why interpreting services is important for Deaf people.” As for the future and in true ThinkandDo spirit, she says, “I am looking forward to being a professional social worker and being able to earn a good living so that I do not have to live paycheck to paycheck. As a social worker, I enjoy seeing Deaf people thriving to improve their life situation and able to participle in the community.”