By Joe Garvey

Deafness doesn't define Kathy Carpenter.

"I was told I couldn't swim competitively because I wouldn't hear the gun go off or the whistle. But I didn't let that stop me," she said. "I was told that I couldn't be a cheerleader because I was deaf and uncoordinated. But again, that didn't stop me. I was told I wouldn't make it through college, but I did.

"Any time someone told me I 'couldn't,' I was determined to prove them wrong."

That determination served Carpenter well as she pursued her master's in engineering with a concentration in systems engineering at Old Dominion University. She will receive her degree in December.

Carpenter, a lifelong resident of King George County, was diagnosed with 75% hearing loss in kindergarten and received her first hearing aid when she was in third grade. In 2005, she was fitted for a cochlear implant, which provides clarity of sound needed to understand spoken language. She chose not to learn sign language.

"It wasn't easy growing up in a small community where deafness was not heard of much or experienced," she said. "I wanted to be treated normal, not some freak where everyone was watching."

Carpenter, who received her undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech, took all of her courses at ODU online. She said Elisabeth Dickie, ODU's director of educational accessibility, ensured that there was a captioner for each of her classes.

She praised her professors for going out of their way to assist her, whether it was paying extra attention to the chat function (since that was her primary way of interacting during classes) or adding closed captioning to videotaped lectures.

She added that Holly Handley, associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering, allowed an office mate to read Carpenter's script to the class for PowerPoint presentations.

"All of the ODU professors were great," Carpenter said. "They should be applauded for their willingness to work with me. Several told me this was as much a learning experience for them as it was for me."

Handley had Carpenter for three classes, including her capstone case study, titled "A System Analysis Approach on Safer Driving for the Hearing Impaired."

"For the capstone class, Kathy was determined to give the presentation herself," Handley said. "She did an excellent job, so much so that I forgot she could not hear my comments and was speaking directly with her instead of typing in the chat."

One other thing that makes Carpenter an atypical college student: She decided to pursue her master's at age 57 after receiving encouragement from co-workers. Carpenter, whose husband, Charles, is a Marine veteran, has worked for more than 35 years in a variety of engineering positions at Naval Surface Warfare Center. They have two children and one grandchild.

Why pursue the degree now? "I wanted to get my master's before I was 60!" she said.

Carpenter, who was nominated for the Sigma Theta Mu international professional systems honor society, hopes her story inspires others.

"I think the world often tends to forget about deaf people," she said. "There isn't enough being done to help them in school from an early age. As a result, they often have low self-esteem or self-worth and feel they 'can't because they can't hear.' Hence, they lose out on rich opportunities to better themselves and those around them.

"If I can get my master's via online classes, I bet you can, too. Don't use your lack of hearing as a crutch."

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