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Tory’s Story

Archaeology buff, language lover, and BU’s only deaf freshman


Tory Sampson would have you believe she’s like any average freshman. She is passionate about her studies, has joined several clubs, attends campus events, and has already developed friendships she hopes will last a lifetime. She wants to spend a semester abroad studying in the Middle East and plans to become an archaeologist and explore ancient Egyptian ruins. She loves languages and is picking up her fourth, Arabic.

But anyone who meets Sampson (CAS’15) knows she is anything but average. She is singularly focused, eager to explore the new and test her own limits, and possesses self-confidence far beyond her 18 years.

She also happens to be deaf, and has been since birth. It is a fact that has never stopped her from accomplishing her goals.

“With interpreters, I’m on the same playing field as hearing students,” Sampson says. “There’s no reason to treat me any differently. I can do the same as any student.”

Tory Sampson and ASL interpreter Janine Sirignano, Boston University deaf college student community, ASL

Tory Sampson (second from left) follows a discussion on Buddhism as ASL interpreter Janine Sirignano (front) signs. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Sampson, who identifies herself as a member of the deaf community, grew up in San Diego, where she attended a mainstream public high school. Passionate about languages, she took French, played lacrosse, and blended in with a student body a third of whom took ASL as a second language.

“Coming to BU wasn’t a culture shock,” she says. Although it’s harder to find people who know ASL here, “it’s really a lot like high school.”

When it came time to think about college, Boston University was a natural choice, she says. Sampson, whose parents are also deaf and whose older brother, Matthew, is hard of hearing, had been to Massachusetts a couple of times on vacation with her family. She first fell in love with Boston then and was attracted to BU because of the reputation of its archaeology program. It’s a field she has been fascinated with since a fifth grade field trip, where she discovered a button during an archaeology dig.

Adjusting to life at BU, Sampson says, has been smooth. Like other freshmen, she found her classrooms, adapted to dorm life, and honed her time management and study skills. But she has had to juggle a layer of complexity most students never experience. She relies on a light instead of an alarm clock to wake up each morning, works with the Office of Disability Services to schedule ASL interpreters for classes or campus events, and must arrive 15 minutes early to snag a front seat. And she always carries a notepad so she can talk to anyone she meets who isn’t fluent in ASL.

“Many people think I have an interpreter with me 24/7,” she says, adding that children sometimes ask if she has ears. They seem relieved when she pulls back her wavy golden hair. “I’m just a normal person. I’m happy to change the way they’re thinking.”

Tory Sampson in humanities class, deaf college student community, ASL, Boston University

Sampson (second from left) responds to a professor’s question. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

On a Tuesday afternoon early this semester, Sampson sat among students at a horseshoe-shaped table in a Core Curriculum humanities class with Jennifer Knust, a School of Theology associate professor of religion, as they discussed Buddhists’ belief in the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Sampson scanned passages in The Life of the Buddha and absorbed the discussion with signing from BU ASL interpreter Christopher Robinson and freelance ASL interpreter Janine Sirignano, who sat to the left of Knust’s podium and took turns interpreting.

The rapid-fire theoretical discussion was hard for the uninitiated to follow, and visibly intense for the interpreters. They paused as Sampson took notes and continued when they had her full attention. When Sampson flashed a quick smile in response to Knust’s occasional jokes, it was 30 seconds after the punch line. She participated in the discussion via the interpreters and never shied away from clarifying her response if she sensed it hadn’t been fully conveyed the first time.

One of the courses Sampson took fall semester was Arabic, but she quickly discovered that it concentrated heavily on listening and speaking, while she needed to focus on reading and writing the language. She dropped the class after a month and worked with Hanan Khashaba, a CAS lecturer in Arabic, and the Office of Disability Services to create a directed study course for spring semester that met her goals.

Diving into uncharted territory

Tory Sampson, learning Arabic language, Boston University deaf college student community, ASL

A page from Sampson's Arabic notes.

On a Friday morning in February, Sampson sat at a conference table with an Arabic workbook, her notebook, and a miniature whiteboard. Two interpreters, Caity Cross-Hansen and Linsay Murphy, sat to her right, rotating every half hour, while Khashaba stood a few feet away at a larger whiteboard. They were about to dive, as they do three times a week, into uncharted territory.

English speakers studying Arabic must learn a new alphabet, get accustomed to writing and reading right to left, and acclimate to sounds that have no direct translation in their native language. Imagine being an interpreter who must distinguish those new sounds and transliterate them into ASL. Then imagine the challenge for Sampson, who must stick those hybrid signs together and create words in a language she cannot hear.

Over the course of an hour Khashaba taught Sampson new letters, common pronouns, and how to conjugate “to have.” She then pulled out a shopping bag and mail from the Middle East to work on translations. Finally she told Sampson to write three sentences in Arabic describing herself.

Most first semester students, Khashaba says, make it through three units in her class; Sampson will undoubtedly finish six. “She always asks for more—more vocabulary, more homework,” Khashaba says. “I have to have backup plans with me all the time.”

“I’m taking Arabic because I don’t want to be one of those typical Americans who go into another country and say, ‘I expect you to know my language,’” Sampson says. “That’s not what I want. I want to go to a country and show that I have respect for the people of that country and their culture.”

And there’s another side to her interest. “I’ve found that if I meet someone who learns ASL and tries to communicate with me,” she says, “I have so much more respect for them. I’m glad that they actually try. I’d like to do the same for Arabic speakers.”

Tory Sampson, Boston University deaf college student community, ASL

Sampson follows signs from ASL interpreter Nathan Fowler (far right) as she dances with ballroom dance instructor John Paul. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In addition to learning Arabic, Sampson has taken on another challenge: trying to master the tango. On a recent afternoon, she watched as BU ballroom dance instructor John Paul was urging students to “listen for the rhythm” of the tango music before pairing up to practice their new moves.

“Gentlemen, you should be very busy,” Paul said, a nod to the overwhelming ratio of women to men in the class.

Paul extended a hand to Sampson, who accepted as her cheeks flushed apple red. She did not hear the tango music playing from a nearby stereo. (Only loud noises—like planes, screams, or a passing motorcycle—register for her.) Her brow furrowed slightly as she concentrated on the complicated moves of the dance. Dancing requires trust between partners; dancing deaf ups the ante on that.

Tory Sampson, Boston University deaf college student community, ASL

Sampson and Rebecca Lopez (SED’15) during tango class. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Back on the sidelines, Sampson practiced with her friend Rebecca Lopez (SED’15), who knows ASL. The two laughed, joked, and twirled each other around in a separate section of the dance floor.

Sampson says she can’t believe her first year of college is almost over. She’s already looking forward to the fall and pursuing more archaeology and anthropology classes (she recently decided on anthropology as a second major). But first things first: she needs to pack for China. She and her brother are spending a month this summer traveling through Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Chongqing.

Apparently a love for languages is a family trait—Matthew is fluent in Mandarin.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

12 Comments on Tory’s Story

  • Ryan JS. on 04.30.2012 at 3:17 pm

    Rock on, Tory!!!

  • Tina Jo on 04.30.2012 at 5:34 pm

    Attagirl, you are going to turn many heads

  • Linda Cundy on 04.30.2012 at 9:02 pm

    Tory – a FUTURE Margaret Mead who happens to be DEAF!! Your proud Aunt in Canada, adding to your international flavor (flavour), eh.

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 05.01.2012 at 12:01 pm

    This story opens the idea that an area of achievement for talented young deaf students may be learning foreign languages via reading and writing.

    I found particularly stunning the quote by Tory’s Arabic teacher, which is: “Because we don’t have the listening part, she moves faster with reading and writing.” The Arabic teacher says that in reading and writing Arabic, Tory is ahead in the curriculum compared to the hearing students she teaches. Wow, this is what I have thought would happen but it was speculation only.

    I hope this will help deaf educators understand that for many profoundly deaf individuals when they first enter school and don’t know English, it can be most efficient to teach English as a second language via print. ASL should be the 1st language to aid with explicit instruction. The majority of deaf students are not exposed to ASL in the classroom and are taught English via lipreading and oralism, methods which have low success rates.

  • Sinead Clements Evans on 05.01.2012 at 9:08 pm

    How wonderful! I too was a deaf student at Boston University and did ballroom dancing as well. The Office of Disability services was exemplary and provided me with the best services one could have away from home.

  • John Battaglino on 05.02.2012 at 10:20 am

    Tory, your story is awesome – even better is your genuine warm smile every time I see you. Thanks for that and finding your way to BU – so glad you’re here. John (aka – the old guy in the Dean’s office who knows just a little ASL. haha)

  • Gin Schaffer on 05.02.2012 at 10:42 am

    Congratulations on your many achievements, Tory! It’s a joy having you here at BU.

  • Patti Halloran on 05.06.2012 at 9:01 pm

    Lindsay is amazing.She was mt first grade student and I couldn’t be more proud.

  • Laura de Freitas on 05.09.2012 at 10:13 am

    TORY! You are so magnificent. So hard driven and inspirational! BU is so lucky to have a student like you!

  • Val Hamblin on 05.10.2012 at 9:22 pm

    What a remarkable young lady. Things have come a long way since the days when deaf and blind people were sent to institutions and condemned to a life of boredom and inactivity. I have no doubt that she’ll succeed in everything she tries.

  • Kristi Kulik on 08.08.2012 at 7:36 pm

    You are going to change the world, my friend!!!

    Big Hugs,
    Kristi :-)

  • Cm on 12.06.2012 at 12:15 pm

    Oh this is heart warming! All the best wishes to you Tory! Good luck girl, keep shining!

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