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Enjoying the silence: How Professor Katie Prins teaches a class she can’t hear

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By Josh Diendorf

Professor Katie Prins opens the door to 101 Cook Hall, her new students nervously awaiting to begin their semester at Grand Rapids Community College. Prins walks past the desks nodding with a smile to the fresh faces that welcome the new semester. She rests her bag on the front desk and she starts to remove her class list from her binder. Reading through the list, she begins to check attendance for her Intro to Deaf Culture course, but the class doesn’t hear her call their names.

Instead, they hear another woman do it for her, an interpreter sitting in the front row of the classroom.

Deaf since birth, Prins utilizes sign language and communicates to her students with the aid of her interpreter, Vicki Woolf.

Photo by Jacquelyn Zeman
Professor Katie Prins signs to her class as her interpreter Vicki Woolf(left) speaks aloud what she signs.

Prins, 33, of Caledonia, grew up in San Diego, California. She experienced a childhood filled with a supportive family, though she smiled when recalling the annoyance of her siblings turning off the closed captioning on the TV when she would leave the room: “They knew I was coming right back!” Prins signed while grinning to her class.

Prins describes what she can actually hear as: “…hearing some high pitches, but no low pitches.” During her class, Prins said that while hearing aids can help, they also amplify the high pitches she can hear, and therefore are not worth the trouble. Through her interpreter, Prins explains that she has 30 percent hearing in one ear and 10 percent in the other, categorized as severe to profound deafness.

When asked why she decided to go into teaching, Prins’ answer was simple: she wanted students to have a professor that could make them understand deaf culture in the best way possible – by having a deaf person do it, firsthand.

“I like being able to share the stories of my life with people taking the class, because they learn more from a deaf person, themselves, rather than someone else who is not deaf and doesn’t have the same experience.”

Beginning her sixth year of teaching at GRCC with the Language and Thought department, you’d be surprised to find out that this is only her side job. She works full-time as the executive director at the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services. Combining both jobs together, Prins estimates that she works about 55 to 60 hours every week.

“I like to keep myself busy,” Prins laughed.

Prins earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from California State Northridge, and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Sioux Falls.

At the DHHS, Prins is responsible for making sure everything is running smoothly.

“I run the everyday things of the office, making sure there is enough money for programs, making sure the agency is in good standing,” she said. “…It’s really hard to fit it into one explanation, because there are so many things involved.”

When answering what has been her biggest teaching challenge, Prins thought for a couple seconds before signing: “All of the students I’ve had have been really great to work with,” she said, “I think at the beginning of the semester, when I explain to everybody how to use the interpreters in the classroom, and how to talk directly to me, or one-on-one, I can do that without an interpreter. So, just (students) getting used to having a deaf teacher and using the interpreter.”

The stigma Prins faces most often, she reveals, is that “(People think) deaf people have a harder time learning, just because they can’t hear,” she said. “We can do everything else – there’s no ‘buts’ with it, I don’t think of myself as deaf, I see myself as normal; so I don’t understand why they treat me different, but I think it’s them…it’s not me.”

Prins’ message is simple: She is not different from any other person, and that everyone is given advantages and disadvantages in life and people work around them.

“(It’s incredible) how far she’s gotten. She was born deaf, and she doesn’t let it change who she is,” said Kali Ralston, 19, a student in her class, “Her message is that no matter what, you just have to power through what life throws at you.”

Her accomplishments can be noted from her Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees, but also from the way Prins carries herself. Even without speaking, Prins’ sense of humor and positive attitude comes through her sign language and almost constant smile. If you asked Prins what it’s like to be deaf, she might tell you, like she told her class, that she’s “…come to enjoy the silence.”

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