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20th June 2017

Learning for life

When university student, Michelle Mohring had the opportunity to study abroad, she took full advantage. From her home in Germany, she travelled 5,000 miles (8,000 km) to West Virginia, USA (with some additional travel adventures for good measure). As expected, she found new knowledge about her subject and how it’s taught in a different country. She also improved her English and learned about American culture and values. Most valuable of all, she gained some unexpected insights about herself.

A daunting opportunity

Many students now take a gap year abroad before or after their university degree, or a semester studying abroad to complement their learning. For Special Education student, Michelle Mohring, spending a semester at Bethany College, West Virginia, this would mean immersing herself into a completely new culture and a foreign language. It would be a challenge for anyone, but even more so for Michelle, who relies on a cochlear implant and hearing aid for her hearing.

Special challenges

You might expect that Michelle’s worries about overseas study would be related to her deafness but, in fact, they were the same as those of any other 23 year-old. How would she cope with her shyness? Would the language difference be a barrier to making friends? In a small college community of only around 1,000 people, would Michelle be bored and become homesick? She needn’t have worried…

A small community turned out to be a benefit with daily opportunities to meet and chat to people, getting to know them and learning who spoke clearly and with whom she needed to focus harder to understand. In addition, there were always plenty of activities to join in with and make friends, so boredom certainly wasn’t an issue.
Initially Michelle struggled to understand English when it was spoken rapidly (and often incoherently). There was more than one occasion when she misunderstood the conversation, resulting in a confusing and humorous exchange, but Michelle takes that in her stride and laughs about it now. Because other foreign students had the same difficulties, it was a refreshing change not to be the only one asking people to repeat themselves and, within a couple of weeks, Michelle could already understand more than when she arrived. After a month or two, she found herself chatting away nineteen to the dozen, like a local. One thing she never got used to, however, was the typical American greeting, “Hi, how are you?” said without waiting for a reply!

Just like the movies

The way classes are taught in America are different from what Michelle was used to, with many classes presented in large halls, rather than smaller groups. Some things were different but nonetheless familiar – they really do use desk-chairs like you see in American films! Other things were a pleasant surprise … inclusion is taken for granted and help was actively offered for anyone with a disability, to the extent that Michelle barely felt like she was disadvantaged at all.

The wireless devices that Michelle uses made a big difference. In classes, she could ask the professor to wear the Cochlear™ Wireless Mini Microphone 2+, which streams simultaneously to her CI and ReSound Hearing Aid. By using the same device as a table microphone in group discussions, Michelle could hear clearly what everyone was saying and participate fully.

The Phone Clip helped Michelle cope with homesickness. Rather than relying on text messages and email, she could use Skype and phone calls to stay in touch with her boyfriend, friends and family. And, when she was out and about, she used the Phone Clip to stream music from her phone without blocking out the sounds around her, making her blend in completely with all the other students.

A voyage of self-discovery

Michelle was looking forward to enjoying new experiences and getting to know herself better. Her visit to New York City certainly helped her do that. In a new city and cut off from all her new friends, she was completely self-reliant, with just a little help from her AirBNB host. Despite her natural shyness, Michelle found herself asking complete strangers for directions and meeting and making new friends daily. By now she could understand almost everything, even in the distinctive New York accent.

Michelle is understandably proud of her achievements and would recommend this kind of experience to anyone who has the chance to do it. She learned a lot about her subject of Special Education which will be invaluable in her future professional life. In addition, she gained teaching experience by teaching German as a foreign language and looks back with particular satisfaction on the day when she stood in front of the whole class and gave a presentation to her fellow students.

Being deaf is tiring, laborious and sometimes depressing. But what you make of it is something else entirely. If you believe in yourself, others believe in you.

says Michelle

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