First international education program featuring American Sign Language to begin in 2007; Goshen College students to study abroad in Jamaica

GOSHEN, Ind. – For the past two summers, Goshen College Assistant Professor of American Sign Language Myron Yoder has taken small groups of students to Jamaica not to discover the island’s well-known beaches but to connect with a school for Deaf children and youth.

Those experiences have led Goshen College to name a new location and new language for the 37-year-old Study-Service Term (SST) program by sending the first group that has American Sign Language (ASL) as its primary language into which students will be immersed. The one-of-a-kind program to Jamaica will take place in the summer of 2007.

Yoder and Director of International Education Tom Meyers believe that this is the first full semester academic ASL study abroad program in the country. They are not aware of any other colleges with such an offering which incorporates both study and service abroad, though some schools do offer several week mission trips with ASL as the primary language.

“We have a tradition of offering SST programs in all the languages we teach here. We now offer ASL, so it is a natural extension of that philosophy,” Meyers said. “Our students will learn about Jamaican culture, but also Jamaican Deaf culture.” Jamaica is a Caribbean island with a rich culture of music, art and cuisine, influenced by its history and blend of ethnic traditions. Jamaica also hosted SST units in the 1970s.

Jamaica was primarily chosen as the location because of contacts Yoder and his wife Sheila, also an assistant professor of American Sign Language Interpreting at Goshen College, made with Maranatha School for the Deaf, a ministry of Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions. The Yoders will be the first unit leaders in 2007.

Like other Goshen College study abroad locations, Jamaica has Third World realities; despite the large tourist industry, most Jamaicans are fairly poor. The country has a 15.9 percent unemployment rate. In addition the country appears to have an unusually large population of Deaf people. According to the Jamaica Association for the Deaf over 300 children are diagnosed each year with a mild to moderate hearing loss. “From this we can assume the incidence of deafness is higher than in the United States,” Sheila said.  Although many developing countries have no schools for Deaf children to attend, Jamaica does have an infrastructure of deaf schools. Sheila said that there are more than eight schools for the Deaf, most started by mission groups, in a country slightly smaller in size than Connecticut.

Starting an SST program in Jamaica “says something about Goshen College’s commitment to validating ASL as a language of equal value to other spoken languages,” Sheila Yoder said. She believes this international education option will appeal to not only ASL Interpreting majors, but other students as well, especially those interested in minoring in ASL.

English is the primary spoken language in Jamaica, but the Deaf community signs with a Jamaican Sign Language which is different from, but is heavily influenced by ASL. Jamaica was colonized first by the Spanish in the 1400s, later by the British and gained independence in 1962.

“We feel like it is a very good place for [students learning ASL] to go to understand how indigenous sign language evolves, but also how it is influenced by outside cultures imposed on a minority group,” Sheila Yoder said. “It will also help them develop their signing skills as they will be using ASL and to understand how school plays a central role in the passing on of Deaf culture.”

The Jamaica unit will be organized like all SST locations, including requiring students to have studied a second language for at least two semesters – in this case ASL. The unit will be based in the capital of Kingston. All students will work in deaf schools throughout the country as the service component of the study abroad program, though this will occur during the first part of their semester abroad rather than in the last half as with most SST units.

The Jamaican schools offer Deaf students a unique community, as most Deaf children are born to hearing parents who do not fully understand or are not a part of the Deaf community. Myron said, “We expect much of the learning to come from living with families of the culture, in this case at schools for the Deaf which often become the ‘family’ to Deaf people. This will certainly provide a significant opportunity for Goshen College students to understand the minority status of Deaf people and the role of education in a developing country.”

After living at the school for six weeks, the students will return to Kingston to live with host families, engage in deeper study of ASL and learn about Jamaican Deaf culture. The Jamaica Association for the Deaf will assist with the education component of the program when the students are back in Kingston.

Although ASL classes have been available at Goshen College for nearly two decades, a four-year degree in American Sign Language Interpreting began in 2002, and the college now offers both a major and minor. This program offers students the opportunity to appreciate the language, culture, contributions and history of the Deaf community in the United States. The four-year degree program is designed to prepare graduates for a professional interpreting career and to use their skills in service to the community and the church. Upon completion of the bachelor’s degree, students will have taken the written portion of the National Registry of Interpreters for Deaf evaluation and have a sound base on which to build their interpreting skills. Goshen is one of only three ASL/English programs in the state of Indiana and it is the only Mennonite college to offer a four-year degree in ASL/English Interpreting.

For more information about Goshen College’s American Sign Language Interpreter programs, visit

Since the first SST units went to Costa Rica, Jamaica and Guadeloupe in 1968 and began one of the country’s most unique international education programs, more than 6,500 students and 230 faculty leaders have traveled to 20 countries; the college currently organizes SST units to study and serve in China, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Senegal and Peru. The program’s uncommon combination of cultural education and service-learning remains a core part of the general education program, and has earned citations for excellence from U.S.News & World Report, Peterson’s Study Abroad and Smart Parents Guide to College, the John Templeton Foundation and American Council on Education.

For more information about Goshen’s SST program, as well as photos, journals and videos from past groups, visit

Goshen College, established in 1894, is a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S.News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit

Editors: For more information, contact News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or