Social Work Grad Overcomes Childhood Illness, Loss of Hearing

Fatu SherriffWhen West African native Fatu Sheriff lost the ability to hear all but a few sounds after becoming very ill as a young girl, her whole world turned upside down.

Not only did she have to adjust to a life without hearing, but except for her family, almost everyone treated her differently because of her new disability. Sheriff said people acted as if she couldn't think the same as before she became deaf, and she began to fall victim to bullying on a daily basis because of the difference in her speech.

"Becoming deaf was the biggest crisis I had to ever experience in my life," said Sheriff. "I was so miserable."

Following her birth and the start of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, Sheriff and her family escaped and sought refuge in a neighboring country. Her childhood was spent in Guinea, which Sheriff said is a beautiful country with good people and rich cultures. But at age 7, she contracted malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, which resulted in permanent and nearly complete hearing loss.

Along with the differences in her peers' attitudes towards her, Sheriff also had to deal with educational changes. She said, due to the lack of knowledge about disabilities and resources available in Guinea, the country can't provide equal opportunities for hearing-impaired members of the community, so proper schooling wasn't an option for her.

In 2001, just before her 13th birthday, Sheriff moved to the United States, which she said was the best thing that has ever happened to her. When she reached grade 7, she transferred to East Rock Global Magnet School in New Haven, and was able to progress in her studies with the help of a sign language interpreter and hard-of-hearing teacher who tutored and introduced her to the deaf community.

"There are no words that can express how grateful I am to (Mary Winchell), who made a big impact on the very being of my education," Sheriff said. "I don't think I could have come this far if it weren't for her."

She later enrolled at Gateway Community College, but was referred to Southern because of its reputable Disability Resource Center, which has provided her with interpreters and note takers. Sheriff has enjoyed being at SCSU, and said she is very appreciative of the encouragement and support that Elizabeth Keenan, a professor of social work and her adviser, has given her. Sheriff has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in social work.

Sheriff said she always wanted to follow in her parents' footsteps of serving others, as her father was a doctor and her mother was a nurse in Guinea. As a former victim of domestic violence, Sheriff wants to help others by becoming a social worker, specializing in domestic abuse. She said she wants to bring families together and promote the repairing of their broken relationships. "I believe that family is important, and the love from family is irreplaceable," Sheriff said.

During her time at Southern, Sheriff has become the vice president of the National Society of Leadership and Success at the university, president of the SCSU American Sign Language and Deaf Awareness Club, and was a model for the SCSU Black Student Union's 2013 "F.A.C.E. The Future" fashion show.

Since she feels so strongly about the challenges she faced as a deaf child, Sheriff said she's also dedicated to assisting the deaf and hearing-impaired community. She recently created a U.S.- and Africa-based non-profit organization called, "IDEAF: International Deaf Education Alliance Foundation, Inc.," a group devoted to empowering the deaf community through global education.

Sheriff said she loves living in the United States because of the educational opportunities it has provided, but misses her family in Guinea. In her spare time, she enjoys playing soccer, and after graduation she plans to earn her master's degree in social work at the University of Connecticut's Advanced Standing Program.

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