For the past year an exchange student from the Philippines has been living in San Antonio, but what separates her from her peers is that she’s deaf. Her impact at Marshall High School has prompted the school to offer American Sign Language as a course.
18-year-old Nicole Linsangan came to the United States in August of last year with a desire to see the world.
“I wanted to travel, I wanted to see what America was like, so I came here," said Nicole via Rhoda Hockett, a sign language interpreter with Northside ISD who translated what Nicole signed. "Last year my friend had been an exchange student and then she told me all about it and I wanted to become an exchange student also.
Nicole's mother had chicken pox during pregnancy and she was born deaf. Like Nicole, her San Antonio host family members were all born deaf. Carol Ann Broderson is Nicole’s host mother. She is able to speak on her own. Broderson said she was approached by a friend of hers to become a host.
“She sent me a message saying, ‘Hey, they’re looking for a deaf family for this deaf girl coming, are you interested?’ I didn’t even think about it and ten minutes later someone was at my door," Broderson said. "The minute she got off that plane she was bonded to us almost immediately.”
At first, Nicole said there were a few culture shocks, especially around food and people.
“I thought it was going to be like Mexico. I saw all these people who looked Mexican and ate Mexican food, which is different from the Philippines because in the Philippines we have rice,” Nicole said.
Broderson said initially she bought rice under the suggestion from a friend before Nicole arrived, to make her feel more comfortable, but Nicole wanted something different.
"I ask her what she wants and she’s like, 'I want hamburger, pizza, french fries, and Fruit Loops!” Broderson said.
Between the two countries, Nicole said there are even differences in sign language.
"Filipino Sign Language is a little more gestural, like the sign for dad in ASL is open hand on the forehead and the sign for dad in the Philippines is showing a mustache on your lips,” Nicole said.
Her stay got off to a bumpy start. Nicole had been going to a school for the deaf back home, so the transition to Marshall High School was difficult.
“It was a struggle, everyone was hearing, I was surrounded by people who didn’t know sign language, and communication was difficult," Nicole said. "If I’m with deaf people I’m fine, I can gesture, I can get along, but having to write back and forth to people who didn’t understand me was hard.”
Gabriella Wolfenberger, Nicole’s inclusion teacher, who was also being translated by Hockett, said after Nicole arrived the other deaf students at the campus began wanting to create a club for American Sign Language, which caught the attention of other students.
“The hearing students heard about it and they just flocked," Wolfenberger said. "The first meeting they had just a few kids, but it just grew and grew and grew until the room wasn’t big enough, they had to move to the library.”
The club helped Nicole feel more at home and Wolfenberger said the principal took notice.
“He loved what was going on and it gave him the idea to set up ASL classes,” Wolfenberger said.
About 200 students have already signed up for the class next year.
Nicole came to the U.S. as part of an exchange initiative known as the YES program through the state department. Connie Coutu, a regional manager with AYUSA, a non-profit organization that matches students with families says the YES program was designed to bring students from predominantly Muslim countries to the U.S.
“It was kind of in response to 9/11," Coutu said. "We had had students who came from the former USSR under the Flex Program. They saw that having youth come over and experience American culture it helps to break stereotypes.”
There are about 85 students in the U.S. under the YES Program. Nicole will not be here for the next semester, but Broderson said with the technology readily available now keeping in touch will not be hard.
“That’s the beauty of technology provided for deaf people because we have video phone or Skype, I can see us talking every day every week because she is like a daughter to us," Broderson said.
Although sad, Nicole said she is ready to go home to share her experiences.