As Utah State University celebrates the graduating class of 2022, Utah State Today is highlighting the profiles of some of the students receiving their degrees.
As she accepts her diploma this spring, Utah State University scholar Natalie Anderson could be the first person in the world born with profound hearing loss to earn a doctoral degree in mathematics.
It’s a novel achievement at which her faculty mentors, including Professor Jim Cangelosi, marvel, and have tried to confirm. (Cangelosi concedes a number of mathematics Ph.D. recipients are hearing-impaired but he emphasizes, “None, whom I can find, were deaf from birth.”)
Anderson views the accomplishment with a humble shrug and less fanfare, focusing pragmatically on the next steps of her personal and professional journey.
Speaking with Anderson, one might never notice her hearing loss. She wears hearing aids, which provide her with limited hearing, and she reads lips. Her soft-spoken, measured speech carries the inflections of her Salt Lake City hometown.
But learning to communicate was a rocky road, and though Anderson makes it seem effortless, the process continues with unique challenges.
“My parents didn’t know until I was nearly 3 years old that I couldn’t hear,” she says. “They suspected I had some kind of developmental delay.”
Anderson describes a family video in which her preschool-self screams at her sister in unintelligible language, trying desperately to be understood.
“My exasperated sister responds, ‘Be quiet, Natalie! I want to be able to HEAR when I grow up,’” Anderson says. “Little did we know that was precisely my challenge.”
A neighbor who was a speech and hearing specialist suspected Anderson had hearing loss, alerted her parents and guided them to the Salt Lake campus of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
“It was a breakthrough opportunity for me,” she says. “I was fitted with hearing aids, began speech lessons and began learning how to understand others.”
By age 5, Anderson entered a conventional kindergarten class at a neighborhood public school. As she continued her K-12 journey, she strove to minimize her disability and fit in.
“I sat in the back of the classroom to avoid calling attention to myself,” Anderson says. “Textbooks became my best friends as I struggled to keep up with lectures and instructions. I was proud, and in retrospect I made my life harder than it had to be.”
Even so, Anderson performed well in her studies, and beyond the classroom excelled in competitive swimming, a sport she began at age 7.
“I had a natural affinity for the water, and in swimming, other than being able to hear ‘take your mark’ and the starter horn, you don’t have to hear well to compete,” she says.
Anderson’s swimming prowess earned her a spot on the then-Mountain West Conference swimming team of the University of Utah, where she majored in mathematics education. Between her junior and senior years, she qualified for the Olympic trials. But, following a demanding schedule of classes, training and competition, along with shoulder problems, Anderson chose to pause her studies and athletic pursuits to serve a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Spanish-speaking mission in Houston.
“It was a great experience but communication was a challenge,” she says. “I learned Spanish but discovered I couldn’t read the lips of Spanish speakers.”
Back at the U, Anderson’s enthusiasm for athletic competition cooled, and instead she focused her energy on academics.
“At that point, I’d been competing most of my life and I was eager to direct my attention to student teaching and preparing for a high school teaching — rather than athletic — career,” she says.
After graduating in 2014, Anderson landed her first teaching position with Salt Lake City’s Highland High School. She taught full-time until 2017, while simultaneously completing a master’s degree in mathematics from the U. She and her husband subsequently moved to Clearfield, Utah, where Anderson taught for two years at Roy High School.
“I loved teaching and loved my students,” she says. “High school is a tender time, and with the challenges I’d experienced, I felt I had insights into the challenges my students were facing.”
But daily teaching began to take a physical and emotional toll on Anderson.
“Teaching requires making decisions — often tough, split-second decisions — all day long,” she says. “That, coupled with reading lips and facial expressions and trying to discern the changing emotional states of my students, was exhausting. I arrived home each day with a debilitating headache.”
A bout with shingles and lingering symptoms made the situation worse.
“I reached the reluctant conclusion that teaching would not be a sustainable profession for me, in the long run,” Anderson says. “But I didn’t want to leave teaching entirely and I felt confident I could use my experience and knowledge to help other teachers.”
During summer 2019, she began to investigate doctoral studies at Utah State and became acquainted with Cangelosi.
“During our first meeting, he talked with me for well over an hour,” Anderson says. “I learned he had keen interests not only in mathematics, but in mathematics teaching and learning. He also shared my concerns about how administrators assess teaching effectiveness and student performance.”
Further, Cangelosi had worked for the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and had long studied unique challenges people with hearing impairments face in an academic setting.
With a goal of entering USU in fall 2020, Anderson hoped to continue her employment at her school or at least within her school district. That wasn’t to be, but she soon found a position with Weber State University, designing tests and supporting teacher instruction for concurrent enrollment. She moved her start date for the USU doctoral program to January 2020.
“The timing was uncanny,” Anderson says. “Had I stayed in my teaching position, I would have struggled with pandemic protocols.”
Trying to communicate with others while wearing masks, she says, is nearly impossible.
At USU, working with Cangelosi, Anderson crafted a research project in which she investigated use of assessments to evaluate students’ mathematics learning. Her efforts yielded her dissertation, “The Influence of a Course on Assessment for Inservice Secondary Mathematics Teachers,” which she successfully defended.
“There’s so much emphasis in our schools on holding teachers and schools accountable using assessments and grades,” Anderson says. “But that shouldn’t be the primary purpose of testing. Assessments have the scientific purpose of developing measurements that influence our evaluations of students’ mathematical achievements.”
From Utah State, she looks forward to future professional endeavors.
“As a teacher, I always wished I had more time to learn about specific ideas,” says Anderson, who is experienced in creating online resources. “Often the things I wanted to learn were not easily found online. Now, I have the education and the time to go forward and create the tools for other teachers that would have benefited me in the classroom.”
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