American sign language professor pursues passion


UW-Eau Claire American Sign Language professor Nicole Jones gives a student feedback by sending a video of herself signing. ©Kaitlyn Zenner 2019

By Kaitlyn Zenner

Without a change of heart in the middle of her college career, Nicole Jones, a UW-Eau Claire American Sign Language professor, might have a life much louder than the one she is living today.

Jones said she originally went to the University of Minnesota to become a veterinarian, but after taking a few American Sign Language (ASL) classes, she decided to make a change that has impacted her to this day.

“I didn’t want to take French or Spanish classes, and I knew minimal sign language, so I took sign language,” Jones said. “During that time, I absolutely fell in love with sign. Because I was animated and I moved my hands before, it was an easy fit. I just completely switched my major to deaf education.”

Jones said though she never imagined herself as a teacher, she ended up teaching American Sign Language at Champlain Park high school in Minnesota after college. She eventually got a job as an ASL professor at UW-Eau Claire and has taught there for the past 16 years.

“My mom was a kindergarten teacher, so when I was going to school, I thought I didn’t want to be a teacher,” Jones said. “Then, the opportunity came, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Though Eau Claire does not have a large deaf community, Jones said the university is able to foster this community within clubs such as ASL honors society and within the classroom.

Jones also instills a voices off policy, which means her students are not allowed to speak aloud and she never speaks aloud to them within the classroom. Jones said her efforts to create an authentic deaf environment can pose a challenge to beginners

“In the very beginning in level one, students don’t have to come in with any background in the language, and we teach it all in voices off,” Jones said. “Sometimes it can be a little complicated for students to trust in themselves that they are going to get the information.”

Paige Murphy, a first-year American Sign Language student, said learning ASL in a completely voices off classroom posed a challenge, but she appreciated Jones’ efforts to teach them in a way that will help students learn the most.

“Professor Jones has definitely helped a ton by really maintaining and supporting our immersive environment,” Murphy said. “By not allowing us to speak in class, we have to practice what we’ve learned, and that makes it really cool to feel like we are actually learning and retaining the things we learned.”

ASL has been offered as a certificate for the past two years for students. Jones says this is largely due to the ASL faculty who pushed for additional classes for many years.

“When I first came, ASL was sort of an afterthought,” Jones said “Now, other universities our size pale in comparison to our program. That’s because of our staff and our motivation to make our program that way and good leaders that allowed us to do that.”

Gretchen Arneson, a fourth-year ASL teaching assistant, said she has appreciated the opportunity learning ASL has given her and how it has helped her to grow throughout the years.

“I learned that there is more than one way to address a situation, and you never know what others have been through,” Arneson said. “Also, by learning about a new language I have learned a lot about myself as well as about my culture and I think this is important because we are a product of our environment and new learning situations can only help us grow.

While Arneson able to use ASL for personal growth, taking classes with Jones helped to instill confidence within Arneson that she had the ability not only to sign, but sign well.

“Professor Jones is very willing and excited to teach the new language, and this helped to keep my interest,” Arneson said. “She has also helped to build my confidence in my ability to sign, reassuring me that I can do it if I just keep putting in the work.”

In terms of future goals Jones has for the ASL program, she said that making connections with other universities to help students achieve their educational goals is the next step.

“We’re not currently an interpreter training program, so we’re starting to collaborate with the University of Milwaukee, which does have that program, so students who want to become interpreters can have a smooth transition and continue on with their program,” Jones said.

While Jones said she wants to continue creating a more rigorous educational ASL experience, she said exposing students to diversity and the culture is one of the most rewarding things about having the opportunity to teach.

“I like teaching about deaf culture and ASL and exposing students to something different,” Jones said. “It’s not like they have to go on and be this interpreter and only use sign, but as long as they have some of that basic knowledge and appreciation for the culture itself, that is what’s important.”