Receiving a Fulbright Academic Research grant has enabled University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate Olajide Cooper to break language barriers and provide others with the gift of communication.
Cooper, who graduated from UNO in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and an endorsement in Spanish as well as partial endorsements in English Sign Language and deaf education, is working in Nicaragua for 10 months. She is studying how adults learn a second language.
“I have like a triangular effect, so I work with parents, I work with children and I work with teachers,” Cooper said. “My main point is with the parents. I’m teaching them sign language with best practice teaching methods.”
Cooper has completed similar work with the parents of deaf Spanish speaking children in Nebraska after receiving FUSE grants. She was encouraged to apply for the Fulbright grant by one of her FUSE grant mentors, UNO professor Julie Delkamiller.
“She [Delkamiller] works in conjugation with Ann Coyne, who is also a professor at UNO, with the
school down here that’s called the Ann Coyne School for the Deaf,” Cooper said. “They heard what I was doing and said they thought what I was doing back home as far as teaching sign language to parents who spoke Spanish, I could do the same thing here.”
Cooper said that she doubted she would receive the Fulbright grant because competition for the grant is stiff.
“I blinked my eyes and got it,” Cooper said, “so now I’m here.”
The impact of Cooper’s work in Nicaragua can be seen in the success of one of her students.
“There’s a little girl at the school that I work at. She is four years old, and she didn’t have any language. She was deaf and had no way of communicating at all. She just yelled at people.” Cooper said. “It was pretty much just yelling all day because she couldn’t express herself.”
The girl’s mom came to Cooper’s Saturday class to learn sign language. Three months later, Cooper saw progress.
“She stopped yelling and screaming because now she realized people understood her,” Cooper said. “When the mom got that language foundation, the relationship between her and her child … she was able to understand what her baby needed.”
Cooper said being able to provide the child with the ability to communicate “makes the whole time here worth while.”
“I know for that little lady – she’s a beautiful little girl – I know that will set her up to have a better future,” Cooper said. “She won’t fall into the cycle of poverty and abuse that can happen to people that have hearing disabilities.”
Cooper’s work in Nicaragua has had a positive impact on her as well.
“To be able to do something like this and to live in a developing country … to be able to come down here and do a little work to help other folks, it’s fulfilling,” Cooper said. “I’ve had other jobs before where I was just working, but this actually feeds the soul a little bit. I feel like my life has purpose.”
When she’s completed her work in Nicaragua, Cooper plans to return to Nebraska to be with her family and complete a master’s in language teaching. Her ultimate goal is to get a PhD, but just like her path to Nicaragua, Cooper said she doesn’t “know where the wind is going to blow” her.
“It has been a very interesting development of how this happened,” Cooper said. “It seems logical, but when I try to sequence it, it’s just a series of just random events and me following with what I enjoyed.”