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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Class of 2021: For Marian Arlanza, Deafness Is No Handicap

By Harry Minium

All things being equal, Marian Arlanza has overachieved in her four years at Old Dominion University.

The Virginia Beach native will graduate with a bachelor's degree in medical laboratory science in December with a 3.92 grade-point average. It's the highest average among all medical laboratory sciences majors.

But things aren't always equal. Sometimes, students find the strength to overcome a major hurdle that might hold others back.

Such is the case with Arlanza, who was born legally deaf. Thanks in part to her parents, who have been her advocates, and her innate desire to succeed, she eventually will work in a hospital or clinic laboratory doing tests that she hopes will save lives.

She said deafness has required adaptation, but has not held her back.

"I've accepted the fact that I lost my hearing, but that doesn't mean my knowledge and passion for medicine have been taken away," she said. "I can still see, touch, smell and walk. There are so many things you can do without letting your disability stop you."

Arlanza said her work ethic comes from her mother, Ann, who recently retired from Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital after a long career in nursing, and her father, Marlon Melanio Arlanza, who works for the U.S. government.

Doctors aren't quite sure why Arlanza lost her hearing. They think she was born deaf. Her inability to hear wasn't diagnosed until she was a year old.

"They realized I could hear, but only at a very low level," Arlanza said. Even with hearing aids, she can't make out speech.

Nonetheless, her mom was determined that she would have the same opportunities as her peers.

She enrolled her daughter in an elementary school that provided interpreters for the hearing impaired. She also signed her up for speech therapy, and unlike some with hearing deficiencies who have difficulty speaking, Arlanza speaks clearly and confidently.

She also learned American Sign Language so that she could work with interpreters.

"My mom wanted me to excel," said Arlanza, noting that many deaf children are homeschooled. "She wanted me to get accustomed to the classroom."

She studied at the Health Sciences Academy at Bayside High in Virginia Beach, where she at first planned to follow her mother into nursing.

Much of her family immigrated to America from the Philippines, and every female in the family is a nurse. Eventually, she realized that communicating with patients would be difficult, so she decided to train to work in a laboratory.

"Marian is everything we want our students to be," said Barbara Kraj, associate professor and program director of the medical laboratory science program.

Arlanza has used interpreters throughout her four years, in class and during clinical practicum at Sentara Princess Anne and Sentara Norfolk General hospitals. Kraj said ODU's Office of Educational Accessibility has made sure Arlanza had the help she needed.

"What they do here at Old Dominion to accommodate people is so much better than anything I've experienced anywhere else," Kraj said.

Arlanza is an artist, and Kraj said she believes "that's helped her with manual tasks. She's very meticulous. Very detail-oriented."

That attention to detail, and her artistic talent, were apparent when students were encouraged by microbiology instructor Angela Wilson to submit projects for the American Society for Microbiology Agar Art contest, in which participants aim to create something artistic in a petri dish. Most attempt to do simple art.

But not Arlanza. She took living microorganisms and drew them in a way that when they grew, they did so in the shape of a fish, a complicated, detailed representation replete with bubbles coming from its mouth.

She said it reminded her of a goldfish she had when she was a child.

"It's hard enough to draw a fish on a piece of paper," Kraj said. "To do it, predicting how the bacteria would grow, that took a lot of skill."

Like so many students in the College of Health Sciences, Arlanza is motivated by her desire to help others. It was a desire passed on by many family members.

"I have wanted to help people since I was in high school," she said. "I'm also motivated to make my parents proud. They've done so much for me."

Arlanza said she also owes much to her interpreters, including Cara Greenwood, who has worked with her the last four years.

"She's been a wonderful student," Greenwood said. "She finishes her homework before it's due. She studies before it's time to study. She's worked so hard, and she's absolutely brilliant.

"We're all going to miss her, but we're so happy for her. She's just been an incredible example for others."

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