Despite being born with the ability to hear, special education major Brenda Nedved grew up facing the challenges of deafness. As a child of deaf adults (CODA), Nedved interpreted for her parents and experienced the discrimination that her parents often faced in public. 

“As a typical CODA, I grew up very quickly,” said Nedved, originally from Elgin. “I spent a lot of time trying to educate myself in a way that I could speak passionately, but informed, about deafness to defend them since no one wanted to hear them defend themselves.”

As Nedved and her fellow aspiring teachers Haley Drucker and Mark Reppen ’15 prepare to graduate December 14 in Illinois State’s commencement, they are mindful of both the challenges and triumphs that they have experienced during their time at Illinois State as well as their paths that led them here.

Nedved, Drucker, and Reppen are the College of Education’s deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) program’s only graduates this semester. Drucker and Reppen were born deaf and faced their own obstacles during their formative years. 

“I always felt like I was an outsider because of my hearing loss,” said Reppen, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Alsip. “I had trouble talking to someone in a noisy environment, listening to someone who talks quickly, or talking to more than one person in a group.”

Graduate Mark Reppen '15 headshot

Mark Reppen ’15

For support, Reppen used hearing aids, attended speech therapy, learned how to read lips, became fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), and received a cochlear implant after the effectiveness of his hearing aids deteriorated. Reppen said the support he received from his family, speech pathologists, and teachers kept him going. 

“My family is a huge support of mine,” said Reppen. “They have strongly supported me in achieving my goals, and I want to thank them for all the love and support over the years.”

Drucker dealt with similar feelings and communication struggles growing up, eventually receiving bilateral cochlear implants and learning ASL as a secondary mode of communication. An alumna of the Child’s Voice school, Drucker also found solace in the support from family and educators. 

“I was told so many times where people were not sure if I could break through from one level to the next because of the limitations of having a so-called ‘disability,’” said Drucker, who is from the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect. “I don’t see it that way. Because at every stage, I’ve had my family, friends, deaf mentors, professors, and, most importantly, myself believe that I will become a licensed teacher of the deaf.  I want to be there for the next generation of kids.”

Each of the three graduating students persevered through challenges at Illinois State. It has taken Nedved five and a half years to finish her degree. For Drucker, she frequently struggled with hearing and therefore, learning, in large classes. 

For Reppen, this is his second Illinois State degree; he originally graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice sciences and discovered that it was not the career for him. When working for a school with a DHH classroom, he discovered his calling and decided to return to his alma mater to earn his second degree.

Despite their obstacles, the students have continued to prevail. They credit their mentor, Department of Special Education Assistant Professor Stephanie Gardiner-Walsh, with helping them complete the rigorous program.

“I am driven to ensure my deaf students have a support system,” said Gardiner-Walsh, who is hard of hearing. “I think the most rewarding part is being able to show a future of success. Like any minority group, we need to see adult role models who share experiences.”

Reppen, who struggled with the stress of the program at times, is thankful for Gardiner-Walsh always being there for him. 

“She gave me and many others a lot of support and really helped inspire me to be a great teacher,” said Reppen.

Drucker also received inspiration from Gardiner-Walsh along the way.

“She understands the emotional struggles that I’ve had in making the best of both the deaf and the hearing world,” said Drucker. “She shows great care and passion.”

Haley Drucker

Haley Drucker

During their final semester, Drucker and Reppen did their student teaching out of the state. Drucker taught in a listening and spoken language classroom for students with cochlear implants in Minnesota, whereas Reppen taught at a school for the deaf in Tennessee. Nedved returned to the school district that she attended growing up in Elgin, working on the administrative side. 

Looking to the future, all three students would like to teach in self-contained DHH classrooms, where students are taught all subjects in one classroom.

The three students and their mentor noted their field’s shortage of educators. “There is a dire need for DHH teachers everywhere,” said Reppen. “Not just in the state of Illinois.”

Gardiner-Walsh said there are only about 35 deaf education programs in the United States, with Illinois State having one of the largest. But even Illinois State’s program is unable to keep up with the need for teachers; Gardiner-Walsh receives upward of 10 job postings a week.

“We are continuously raising deaf awareness,” said Drucker. “We need more teachers to help students who are deaf and hard of hearing reach their full potential in the hearing world.”

After years of experience and preparation, the students are ready to immerse themselves in the field and give back to the deaf community.

“I am eagerly looking forward to begin the new chapter of my life,” said Reppen. “It will be the start of a goal of mine, which is to give back to the deaf community and give these kids a chance in life to live it to the fullest.”