Story by Joshua S. Kelly
Like most, Clemson University special education major Tori Berry first saw Jason Hurdich during TV coverage of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. He was then- Gov. Nikki Haley’s American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter during her press conferences, and his expressive and enthusiastic signing captured the nation’sattention.
“The way he signed was a way that I had never seen before; it was just very charismatic,” Berry recalls. “I thought, ‘I will probably never be that good, but it would be really nice to know what is going on.’”
At the time, however, she had no idea that she would be able to learn ASL directly from the unexpected celebrity.
When Clemson announced Hurdich’s hiring with a video over the summer, Berry excitedly asked her roommate, Katie Wimberly, another ASL student, “Is there any way he is really going to be our professor?!” When they learned that Hurdich had been assigned to teach their section, they were ecstatic.
“The person that inspired me to learn the language was now going to be teaching me that language,” Berry said. “It’s really interesting how it fell into place.”
Wimberly became interested in ASL about eight years ago, when she noticed that the family sitting behind her at football games would sign the national anthem for their son. She says, “I wanted to learn ever since then.”
Both Berry and Wimberly want to go into speech pathology, and being able to communicate with members of the deaf community is not only a useful professional skill but also a way to communicate with people they weren’t able to before.
Given Hurdich’s talent, it’s no surprise to learn that Clemson isn’t his first post. He has a long history with teaching.
Most recently, he worked in the Charleston area for the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department as a certified deaf interpreter (CDI). There he helped train members of the deaf community to find employment.
This year, he decided to continue his 23 years of teaching at the college level in hopes of inspiring more young people to become certified councilors for the deaf community. “I thought it was a good time to come back to teaching and serving the deaf community in that way,” Hurdich signed. “I really missed inspiring young folks in ASL.”
Clemson is the only program in the state that teaches interpreters to work in the public school system. For Hurdich, that made the decision to trade the paperwork in for coursework an easy one.
“I felt that it was a good fit,” he says. “And encouraging students here at Clemson is really integral to get them to become interpreters and get them to work more broadly with the deaf community.”
Part of the problem facing the deaf community is that there is a shortage of interpreters that know ASL as well as certified deaf interpreters. According to Hurdich, only about 60 or 70 CDIs work in the state of South Carolina.
“While some might think that being deaf would make the role of a professor more difficult,
for Hurdich’s students, it is an advantage.
The charismatic and captivating signing that made him a celebrity came from having ASL as his first and natural language.”
Teaching more students how to sign ASL and getting them inspired by the language is the first step in addressing the shortage. But learning ASL isn’t always easy.
“The very first class with an ASL 1 group takes a little time, but we work through it using PowerPoint and visual aids and anything like that,” he says.
Hurdich is himself a member of the deaf community and a CDI. While some might think that being deaf would make the role of a professor more difficult, for his students, it is an advantage. The charismatic and captivating signing that made him a celebrity came from having ASL as his first and natural language.
Because he brings the intimate knowledge of living using ASL to the classroom, Hurdich can teach students more than just the vocabulary and structure of the language.
“Non-manual markers, which a lot of people think of as facial expressions, are linguistically so vital to ASL. They reflect pitch and tone changes and syntax and grammar,” he says.
Hurdich pointed out that someone who did not grow up signing might not necessarily realize the need to emphasize tonal changes or syntax when using ASL. “Especially when interpreting in a larger venue, we have to be much more expressive,” he signed while his face lit up with the effusive eyes and a larger-than-life grin so many recall seeing on TV or the internet.
“The goal is to reach every single deaf person, regardless of their language fluency.”
As Hurdich puts it, the challenge is realistically getting the information out to parents. Regrettably, the vast majority of non-deaf parents only learn how to sign a few basic words, and that creates a large need in the community to have more fluent signers.
Fortunately, Hurdich says, “Once there is a little spark there in terms of interest, it can go from there.” And with his magnetic personality and passionate signing, Hurdich is inspiring Clemson students to strive to be better signers in every class.