By BILL SCHACKNER
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Like plenty of graduates this commencement season, Danah Richter will step onto a stage in cap and gown and utter to herself an expression common this time of year: “I did it!’’
But in fact, the Carlow University senior’s path to a college degree was anything but ordinary.
Richter, 27, lost her hearing to spinal meningitis when she was 20 months old. The New Kensington resident spent much of her early life straddling the worlds of those who can hear and those who can’t, trying to figure out in which of those worlds she belonged.
Along the way, she changed schools, switched majors and re-evaluated what she expected from the world and how she wanted to relate to it.
But one thing did not change _ her intent to prove to herself that she could thrive on a campus where others could hear.
“It was my determination that I was going to finish no matter what,’’ she said. “I was raised to be independent.’’
Richter’s first language is American Sign Language. Speaking to a reporter through an interpreter, she described how she hopes her bachelor’s degree in social work will allow her to help future clients with hearing disabilities bridge both worlds.
Evidence that she thrived at Carlow is seen in the six times she made the dean’s list and in her 3.4 GPA and that have led to her walk with the school’s Class of 2015 in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum on May 9.
It also can be seen in the litany of volunteering, research and other activities, including work with state and national deaf advocacy groups and travel with classmates for an alternative spring break to help New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy.
In recent days, she received the social work department’s award for field excellence.
“I don’t know of many undergraduates who have a nine-page (curriculum vita),’’ said Jacqueline Smith, writing consultant and disabilities representative at Carlow, who has worked closely with Ms. Richter.
Even with those successes, there were considerable hurdles _ academic and personal _ that Richter had to overcome.
For one thing, those who communicate through sign language can have a harder time understanding and putting onto paper standard written English. Her sign language does not have articles like “a’’ and “the,’’ or conjugated verbs that would allow for different tenses.
“I go school tomorrow’’ and “I go school yesterday’’ _ sentences that seem unfit for college _ are correct grammar in a language that uses a forward hand gesture for the future and a backward hand gesture for the past.
“If she came to a term that didn’t have signs, she’d find a dictionary, and if that didn’t work, then she would go to a thesaurus to find the word that had a sign,’’ Smith said. “The persistence she had to have just to understand the reading, to work on vocabulary and language construction was huge.’’
Richter, soon to represent the first generation of her family to graduate from college, uses an interpreter in classes and other settings. In her residence hall, those who cannot sign communicate with her through texting.
Richter grew up in a hearing family as the younger of two sisters.
Her father is a mill worker, currently unemployed. Her mother, who worked clerical jobs, died 10 years ago after developing a tumor and lung cancer.
Danah’s parents enrolled her as a small child in the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf where she was in a residential program from grades 6 through 12.
At a doctor’s suggestion, she received a cochlar implant. With much effort, she could hear limited sounds, but she said having the device alienated her from the deaf students around her.
Ultimately, she decided the device did not fit with her identity.
After graduating high school, she initially studied art at Rochester Institute of Technology, home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. But she felt she did not fit in at RIT, and, after she lost funding for her studies, she left.
She remembered getting back a term paper with an A and reading a classmate’s paper that she knew was superior to hers. It received only a C.
Richter decided that was not how she wanted to be treated. She wanted to be graded on the merits of her work, not pitied because she could not hear.
She enrolled in courses at Community College of Allegheny County, including psychology, but still felt she had not found her niche.
She arrived at Carlow feeling as she had much of her life. “No one understood me,’’ she said.
But over time, things changed. She is leaving with a sense that she found a home on the small Catholic campus, in part because the community embraced her and in part because she herself changed.
“I am more flexible and open, more willing to hear someone out and see their perspective,’’ she said.
Asked if many deaf students attend regular colleges, Vicki Cherney, spokeswoman for the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, said, “Statistically, it’s unusual because only about 2 percent of the population is profoundly deaf.
“While it’s not typical, it’s not atypical for a deaf student to go to a hearing university if that particular school will support the person and provide the appropriate services.’’
She said many go on to study at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf. Richter has been accepted there for graduate studies.
Her father, Brian Jablonski, 57, of New Kensington, will be in the crowd at Soldiers & Sailors as Richter walks with her class.
“I will be tickled pink,’’ he said. “She is such a beautiful, fun-loving person.’’
He said Danah’s mother will be there in spirit. “Her mother is probably smiling down on her,’’ he said.