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Bringing two worlds together

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 10:34 p.m.

Angelika "Amy" Jaszczuk has spent her life in two worlds and two cultures.

Her father and stepmother, Jan and Theresa Rawecki, who raised Jaszczuk for much of her life, are both deaf. As a result, Jaszczuk grew up in a world where her hands were the primary tools of communication.

But Jaszczuk can hear — and so she lives in the world of spoken language as well.

Now the 21-year-old Unity Township woman plans to blend her two worlds together, working as a teacher specializing in the education of deaf children.

Jaszczuk recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg with a bachelor's degree in psychology. After a few weeks off, she'll begin pursuing a master's degree in deaf education at the university's campus in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

Pitt has given Jaszczuk a full-time tuition grant and monthly stipend to help her work toward the advanced degree.

Her father is overjoyed by her academic accomplishments.

"I grew up in Poland and came to this country in 1981, with Amy at age 2 months old," he said in an interview conducted via a telephone relay service. "She is the first person who graduated from college in my family. That's why I am so proud of her, because I moved here from Poland to give her a lot of opportunities."

Jaszczuk's Polish parents were awaiting permission to come to the United States when she was born in Austria. She was still a baby when the family moved to New York City, where she lived until she was 9.

At that point, Jaszczuk moved to Los Angeles to live with her father and stepmother. At 13, she then moved with them to Unity Township. She attended Greensburg Central Catholic through her high school years.

Jaszczuk had applied to master's programs both at Pitt and at Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., school primarily for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Pitt came through with the full-tuition grant after Jaszczuk wrote an essay about her membership in Children of Deaf Adults (CODA).

LIFE IN TWO WORLDS

As a member of CODA, Jaszczuk became part of a unique group of people.

"These people have their own little culture because they have identities with both hearing and deaf," Jaszczuk said. "Growing up, my first language was sign language."

Attending kindergarten was difficult for Jaszczuk at first because she was accustomed to communicating with gestures rather than spoken words.

"It was hard for me to adjust to the hearing culture when I started going to school," she said. "Using my voice was new to me."

Helping deaf children seemed a natural choice for her.

"I really enjoy children — playing with them and working with them," she said. "I decided to go with the deaf education part because that's more my first language, my natural language. There's more a need for deaf teachers, and I'm probably the next best thing because I'm CODA."

TWO LOVES: CHILDREN, TEACHING

Her love of children and teaching shows through all of her volunteer work.

At Hutchinson Elementary School in the Greensburg Salem School District, Jaszczuk has served as a "lunch buddy" to a second-grade girl and taken part in the Read for Lifelong Learning program.

Hutchinson Assistant Principal Kitty Hricenak said both jobs required a lot of time.

"She's extremely conscientious," Hricenak said of Jaszczuk. "She's very mature, even for a college student. She seems to be really well-grounded and have goals."

Jaszczuk has been a playground instructor at the Whitney playground and works part-time at Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

FOLLOWING HER CALLING

Last summer, she taught American Sign Language for beginners to a group of second- through fifth-graders at Westmoreland County Community College.

"I set up the whole course," Jaszczuk said. "I picked out the book and set up the curriculum for it."

This summer, she will teach beginning and intermediate sign language at WCCC.

"She is an excellent student," said Diane Marsh, professor of psychology at Pitt-Greensburg. "But what I think really distinguishes her is her commitment to use her psychology in working with people who have hearing impairment. So she's integrated her family experience with her educational experiences and is obviously going to have a significant impact on the field.

"It's not so much a career as a calling — something that is operating on a higher level, where she really wants to give something back," Marsh said.

Jaszczuk's career choice mimics that of her stepmother, who teaches a sign language interpreter program at Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson.

Through the telephone relay system, Theresa Rawecki said Jaszczuk has a perspective on deaf culture that most hearing people do not.

"Amy sees that many, many hearing people do not understand deaf culture," she said. "For example, hearing people ask me how can I raise Amy because I can't hear. There's no difference. I can raise her in communication of sign language. She has a lot of exposure to the deaf community. That's why she wants to teach deaf children."

Once she completes the master's program, Jaszczuk will be certified to teach deaf children in grades kindergarten through 12. "I could either go to a deaf school or an intermediate unit — anything related to teaching deaf children," she said.

Her parents are behind her.

"I am too proud of her, and I could not believe she goes through school work, volunteers, part-time jobs. She makes me feel inspired," her father said.

New program to aid deaf, hard-of-hearing in Westmoreland County

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Westmoreland County are among the first in the state to have access to video interpreting services in their job searches.

Since March, the Westmoreland County Team Pennsylvania CareerLink Center, on the campus of Westmoreland County Community College, has provided the service, office manager Tony Gebicki said.

On Wednesday, an open house was held to show employers and people who are deaf or hard of hearing the advantages of the video interpreting services.

The Westmoreland County center is one of two Pennsylvania pilot projects that received funding through the Center of Excellence for Remote and Medically Under-Served Areas of St. Francis University. It is hoped that the program will be expanded to reach statewide, Gebicki said.

The service allows deaf and hard-of-hearing people to use the center's resources to find employment using the video conferencing hook-up to a certified interpreter, based in Johnstown. In addition, employers will be able to interview potential workers with help from the video interpreter, Gebicki said.

About two people make appointments to use the service each week, he said.

"We do have a community of 150-plus of the deaf and hard of hearing," Gebicki said. "It's definitely a need that we can serve."

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