Silent World No Obstacle to WPI's Colleen O'Rourke

Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

WORCESTER, Mass. - Colleen O'Rourke will graduate with honors in biomedical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute this Saturday, earning A's in all three of the extensive projects required at this university. Her research involved topics as diverse as anesthesia, surgical devices and problems with the ozone layer.

This 22-year-old Worcester, Mass., resident graduated with highest honors from Holy Name High School four years ago. She had been a member of National Honor Society for three years-and an instructor with a black belt in karate.

A vibrant young woman with green eyes and light red hair, Colleen punctuates her conversation with warm laughter. Clearly she is ready for the challenges facing any college graduate at commencement time. While her accomplishments would be impressive for any student, they are nearly miraculous for one who is functionally deaf.

"At a very early age my wife and I were told by experts in the area of learning disabilities that Colleen would not be able to develop normally academically in a regular school environment," says her father, James P. O'Rourke, a member of WPI's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. "Her best chance for development, we were told, would be to attend a school for the deaf. However, we never told Colleen that."

Instead, Jim and MaryEllen O'Rourke enrolled 3-year-old Colleen at the local Mercy Centre for the developmentally disabled where she learned to listen with hearing aids, to read lips and to speak clearly (a problem for all deaf people). At 6, she began kindergarten at the mainstream and competitive Our Lady of the Angels School where she earned straight A's in all subjects from kindergarten through grade 8. In an article in the school newsletter titled "O'Rourke excels amidst challenges," Colleen was recognized for her extraordinary accomplishments.

"Colleen was born with a bilateral severe/profound sensorineural hearing loss and has been functionally deaf since birth," the article noted. "She depends on two hearing aids and her ability to lip read for communication." The school principal acknowledged "classroom instruction requires 100 percent concentration" for Colleen. Yet, she won numerous awards for academics and for being a "well-rounded young lady who had learned to cope and succeed with her disability."

This Saturday, as she receives a diploma from a rigorous technological university, Colleen once again will graduate with academic - and more personal - honors. As graduation nears, Colleen has advice for all of us managing problems of our own.

"Always keep that positive attitude," she says. "Always give it a try. Don't assume the worst at all times. Be aware of the worst, but don't use that to base all your decisions."

Colleen's advice comes from the heart. It is not easy being different, and it's not easy being deaf in a hearing world.

"When I was in grade school, I had a lot of attention from my peers that wasn't exactly positive," she recalls.

"There were times I would come home from school crying because they really tortured me for the whole day.

It was just non-stop for many, many years. I would go home to my parents and tell them, 'Sometimes I don't feel like going to school because they are being so rough on me for something I can't control.' My parents told me it was up to me whether or not to listen to them. So I learned to ignore them and I learned how to be by myself, an independent person."

Her father also found a way to develop Colleen's confidence through the martial arts, enrolling her in Villari's Self-Defense Center. "From my own experiences I knew this would teach her physical and mental discipline and that perseverance and hard work will allow you to achieve those things you want in life," says Jim O'Rourke. "As a freshman in high school she passed a grueling five hour test and received a first degree black belt. A few years later, she passed a test for second degree black belt, one of the youngest females in the Villari worldwide organization to do this."

Some are surprised to learn Colleen never learned sign language, which most associate with the deaf.

"I never really needed it," she says. "I always wanted to learn it because it's part of who I am. But my parents wanted to keep me as normal as possible. I think it helped me develop more, not to rely on the signs. It's a very good thing, sign language, but in the real world, it's hard to come across an interpreter to go through everything with you."

In grade school, she used another tool called an "auditory trainer." It consists of a receiver worn by the deaf student and a sending device used by the teacher. In class, the teacher's words are transmitted into a receiver, which connects to the child's hearing aid. Unfortunately, the student can hear nothing else. If others wanted to speak to Colleen, they would have to crouch and direct their voices into the tiny microphone on the receiver around her waist. Needless to say, the apparatus didn't do much for interactions in the classroom-or her social life.

By high school, she had mastered lip reading and had become adept at "context," scoping out the gist of things around the words she could understand. Double hearing aids, despite attendant background noise problems, also helped, and she discarded the auditory trainer.

Colleen has gathered strength from her parents, who provide unstinting support and provided the tools to succeed.

"Parents are the ones who make the decisions early on in life," she says. "It's up to the child to take that on when they're older. But parents need to show that child the way to go. At an early age, I learned everybody has disabilities. At my preschool, I was around other students who had problems. I learned it wasn't just me, all by myself in the world."

Looking back on her decision to attend WPI, Colleen says, "I was always up for a challenge. When I first came here, my father wanted me to concentrate on my studies in freshman year. My father always prepared me for the worst, but always made sure I had a positive outlook. Because he went here himself, he knew how difficult it was at WPI. But halfway through my sophomore year I decided I wanted to join Alpha Phi Omega, because it is the national service fraternity and I was always interested in service. I also wanted to meet some people since I didn't live on campus and there weren't any interactions with other students. I wanted all of the college experience! It was a lot of fun and I wouldn't have gone back on that for the world." Colleen has served as the fraternity's vice president of fellowship.

Eventually Colleen hopes to help others dealing with hearing loss.

"I want to go into the hearing aid industry," she says. "I know what the advantages and disadvantages are. And I want to learn more about what factors influence hearing aids and what are their limitations. I am also interested in the biomedical imaging field, taking pictures of the body."

In addition to her parents, Colleen credits friends at WPI with much of her joy on graduation day.

"For years, I always felt alone and left out in the social environment," she says. "However, I would say I started to open up to people more once I met my boyfriend, Jeffrey Jacobson (who is also graduating from WPI). His acceptance of who I was gave me that faith in people in my age group that I thought I lost. It is definitely essential to have the parents' support and positive attitude when a child has a hearing impairment or any other disability. But, I feel that having a peer, classmate or friend's acceptance and support, in addition to the parents', is even better. Since now I realize that I will always have the support of these few friends, knowing this boosted my self-esteem. I did better in classes. WPI is a hard place to exceed at if you feel isolated by your peers since there is a focus on teamwork. I now have a social life! I'd like to send a message to all those students out there that know people with a disability. Becoming that person's friend is the best thing that can happen to them."

This fall Colleen has accepted a teaching assistantship as a graduate student in WPI's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to work on her master's degree. Grad school is just another challenge to meet.

"Whenever a new problem comes up, I'll just figure out a way around it and just proceed from there," Colleen says. "I guess it's my parents who taught me that. They never said, 'Oh, you can't do that.' They said, 'Oh, you want to do that? Okay, try it.' You can't feel sorry. That won't get you anywhere. A lot of people wanted to say to me, 'You can't' and that just made me want to go out there and prove 'Yes, I can.'"