Gallaudet graduate retires after establishing, coordinating Towson University Deaf Studies Program

July 05, 2018

Author: Phil Dignan

After establishing and directing the Deaf Studies program at Towson University (Maryland), a program with a faculty made up of Gallaudet alumni, and seeing over 800 students graduate from the program during the last 18 years, Dr. Sheryl Cooper, PhD ’97, retired on June 30.

However, Cooper has no plans to stop her work with the deaf community.

Cooper's interest in American Sign Language began as a three-year-old, as her grandfather and father, in their family business, employed deaf dental technicians. She learned how to fingerspell from her parents while learning the alphabet.

"My grandfather, Nathan Cooper, established the Cooper Dental Laboratory in Baltimore in the 1930s, and he hired a deaf man to work for him almost immediately," said Cooper. "Over the years, my grandfather, and later my father, hired several other deaf people to work as dental technicians."

Cooper explained that with the dental lab, affectionately known as "the tooth factory," her father worked closely with vocational rehabilitation services in Maryland to establish a training program for deaf high school students. Many that went through the program were hired at the Cooper Dental Lab or other local labs.

"The rehabilitation counselor who worked with my father was rated highly successful for placing so many of her clients," said Cooper. "She also married my father."

As a high school student, Cooper became even more intrigued with sign language.

"In the 1970's, there were lots of deaf people around the tooth factory. I was stopping by the lab more regularly and saw that there was more to signing than the alphabet. I wanted to communicate with them. I spoke French, Spanish, and Hebrew, and wanted to add sign language to the list."

Cooper earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in 1978, and a master's degree from New York University in 1981. She then worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Prince George's County, Maryland for five years.

While attending Penn, Cooper found a series of non-credit "Ameslan" classes at the Community College of Philadelphia, attended deaf events, and made many deaf friends.

"I decided to make working with deaf people a career."

After earning her master's degree, she worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Prince George's County, Maryland for five years before coming to Gallaudet in October 1985, joining the newly-established Career Center as a placement counselor. Her duties included running the Summer Job and Job Development programs, and coordinating a weekly email listing of job availabilities for students, which she remembers as "very cutting edge back in the mid-1980's."

Cooper worked with Gallaudet until August 1988, when she accepted a tenure track position with Towson under the condition that she pursue her Ph.D.

"Although I could have attended any program within the University of Maryland system with full tuition reimbursement, I chose Gallaudet for several reasons," said Cooper. "I thought the Gallaudet name would give me more credibility in the deaf community, I had greatly enjoyed my time working on campus and was eager to continue my relationships with various constituencies on campus, and I thought the Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Supervision was a good match for my career plan as a program director at Towson."

Cooper worked toward her doctorate degree part-time between 1989 and 1997. During this time, she got married in 1990, had her first child in 1992, and her second in 1996.

"It was a busy time," said Cooper.

As program coordinator for the Deaf Studies program at Towson, Cooper took on significant challenges.

"When I arrived at Towson, there were 15 sections of a course called "Basic Sign Language" located within the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders," said Cooper. "Each section was taught by a different instructor, and there was no coordination or standardization. I immediately noted the lack of coordination and standardization, as well as the fact that every instructor was hearing. All were speech pathologists except one, who was a lacrosse coach with a deaf son. My goals were to develop a formalized program that would include deaf instructors, change the signed English classes to ASL, expand the course offerings into a degree program, and update the name of the department.

"Bringing my dream to fruition took many years."

Cooper's beginning years resulted in an increase of deaf instructors and a shift in instruction from coursework emphasizing signed English to American Sign Language. The course "Introduction to Deaf Studies" replaced "Psychosocial Aspects of Deafness." Following Cooper's completion of her doctorate studies at Gallaudet, she developed a major in Deaf Studies proposal to submit to the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC).

With positive responses from community employers, current students, and a track record of over 50 students who had graduated from Towson with a degree in interdisciplinary studies focusing on sign language, MHEC agreed to add Deaf Studies to Towson's curriculum in the year 2000.

"In my proposal, I projected that we might start with 20 students in the major and add 5-10 students each year," said Cooper. "Imagine my surprise when we had over 100 students in the major by the end of the first year."

Cooper stated that Towson's Deaf Studies program has between 175-250 students each year. In 2015, a Deaf Studies minor was added to the curriculum, bringing the number of Deaf Studies students close to 300.

"In 2000, I was the only faculty member," said Cooper. "Now we have five full-time positions plus 3-4 adjunct professors each semester. Our curriculum has expanded to include over 25 discreet courses, and we run multiple sections of many courses."

Full time professors at Towson include Jody Cripps, ’98, Kathleen Burke Hajdamacha, ’87, Jason Begue, ’09 & ’14, and Noe Turcios, G-’16.

One of the courses Cooper developed and taught for the past 18 years is "Career Exploration in Deaf Studies," where students are introduced to over 30 career options in the deaf community.

"Many students enter the Deaf Studies major thinking their only choices are interpreting or teaching," said Cooper. "It has been my pleasure to introduce them to a host of other options that may better fit their skills and personalities."

Another class created by Cooper, "Intro to Deafblind Culture and Communication," stems from her work with the deaf-blind community. She is the founder and past president of Advocates for Communication Technology for Deaf-blind People, a supporting member of the American Association of the Deaf-blind (of which she was voted the 1994 Volunteer of the Year), and the Metro Washington Association of the Deaf-blind.

Along with coursework, Cooper has initiated several extracurricular opportunities to foster ASL learning outside the classroom. Among these are an ASL club (which visits Gallaudet once or twice yearly), a voice-off ASL Lab, internships and service learning opportunities, Deaf Studies summer programs in Siena, Italy, and an "ASL Residential Learning Community."

"Six years ago, I was the force behind establishing an ‘ASL Dorm' with voice-off hours and ASL activities to foster ASL learning outside of the classroom," said Cooper. "This program hosts guest speakers, field trips, activities, games, and more. A colleague and I did a research study which determined that students who chose to live in the community had a very positive experience in building unusually strong relationships with their peers."

Cooper also developed an agreement with Gallaudet's Visiting Student program several years ago. Many Towson students have spent a semester living and studying at Gallaudet. Cooper also coordinated an event each fall, MEET Market (Making the Extended Education Transition), where organizations and graduate schools come to provide information to students. Many Deaf Studies graduates from Towson continue their education at Gallaudet University in Interpreting, Deaf Education, Social Work, Psychology, School Psychology, and other majors.

"Dr. Cooper always emphasizes Gallaudet's graduate programs with her students," said Wednesday Luria, Prospective Graduate Student Services coordinator. "Towson has become one of our top feeder schools."

Gallaudet hosts several internship sites on campus for Towson students including the Athletics department, the Department of Interpretation, the ESL Lab, Residence Life, the Dance Department, and the Clerc Center.

As for post-retirement plans, Cooper looks forward to interpreting, consulting, traveling, and spending time with family.

"I'm still young and have plenty of energy!"

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From left: Begue, Turcios, Hajdamacha, Cripps, and Cooper. Photos courtesy of Sheryl Cooper.