Professor finds unexpected passion teaching ASL
4 mins read

Professor finds unexpected passion teaching ASL

Voice off, voice on and interpretive dance – Teri Bellis, chair of the department of communication sciences and disorders, uses unique teaching techniques in and out of the classroom.

Sydney Busch, a junior communication sciences and disorders major, said she’s enjoying her first class with Bellis.

“I love her. I think she’s a great professor just in the fact that she tries, in ASL (American Sign Language) specifically, to help us learn the language in the most genuine way possible — immersion,” Busch said. Those who want to learn American sign language may consider enrolling in Online ASL Classes.

Bellis grew up in the Deaf community, which helped her find her way to her field. However, it wasn’t always easy being an audiologist and a member of the Deaf community.

“Being an audiologist and being someone in the Deaf community was something that was seen as shameful in the Deaf community,” she said. “When I first started teaching here, ASL was the last class that I wanted to teach, and that’s where my two worlds collided.”

Growing up with a deaf older brother meant Bellis’ first language was ASL.

“By the time I came along, we were immersed in the world of ASL and the Deaf community,” she said. “So, all my friends were deaf. My parents’ friends were deaf.”

Teaching is what Bellis always wanted to do. Growing up in the Deaf community, she assumed she would go into deaf and English education. Her plans soon changed when she took her first audiology class.

“I fell in love with (my very first audiology class) because it had more of the medical aspects, which I love, and then I fell in love with the brain,” she said. “So I specialized in neurology.”

She then got her master’s degree in Santa Barbara at the University of California, completed her residency in Los Angeles and moved to Colorado Springs where she worked in the medical field.

While she was happy in the medical field, she still had the desire to teach, but there was nowhere nearby to get her Ph.D. Then one day, as she was expecting her third child, her husband was laid off. The family decided to make a move.

“With a five-week-old baby, two other kids, a golden retriever and a husband, we sold our house and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago so I could go to Northwestern University and get my doctorate so I could teach,” she said.

When Bellis completed her doctorate in audiology and hearing sciences with a specialty certification in language and cognition, she started applying for teaching jobs.

“I wanted to be at a place that I truly felt valued teaching, because what I wanted to do more than anything was teach. I had a lot of interviews lined up, but my first interview was here,” she said. “(After the interview) I canceled all the other interviews and I took the job. I didn’t even interview anywhere else, I just said, done. This is it and I’ve never looked back.”

Bellis taught for a while and continued her research, eventually becoming the chair of the department. But she still didn’t want to teach ASL. That all changed when an ASL professor resigned a week before school started.

“Somebody had to step up. So there I was, teaching ASL and I found out that I love it,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite classes to teach.”

Ti’Esha Jones, a senior psychology major, said Bellis’ passion shows in her teaching.

“She wants us to learn how to sign, but she’s really concerned that we learn a different culture,” Jones said. “I feel like it’s a different type of inclusive excellence than what we’re used to seeing around campus. Usually what we see on campus is about race. As a minority, I get to see it first hand and I care so much about having all these different minorities represented… I never stop to think about deaf versus hearing. It’s crazy, I’m a majority in this case, being hearing and it’s just a humbling experience.”