American Sign Language Has Found a Growing Home on the Hill

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Now offered as a minor, the study of ASL at Cornell came about through years of student advocacy

By Joe Wilensky

Ask Mollie Tashlik ’26 what her favorite word in American Sign Language is, and she’ll reply: “surprise.” And she’ll demonstrate, closing her eyes and quickly bringing her hands up on either side of her head, using her thumbs and forefingers to frame her face and then opening her eyes in sudden, dramatic fashion.

“ASL is a very interactive language,” observes Tashlik, a human development major in Human Ecology who’s currently enrolled in a second-level class. “One of the first things you learn is that even if you’re not the one who’s communicating, you’re using your body to be like, ‘I’m paying attention.’”

Students practice ASL during a class in Morrill Hall
Oliver Peters ’25 (left) and Tia Taylor ’25 practice during a class in Morrill Hall.

ASL is thriving on the Hill, with course offerings on the rise for the past several years. More than 20 classes are now offered, enrolling some 350 students in 2023–24, says Brenda Schertz, coordinator of the ASL/Deaf Studies Program in Arts & Sciences’ linguistics department.

An academic minor in the subject was added in 2023, and in early May 2024, Cornell hosted its first-ever ASL symposium, celebrating the first five years of the ASL/Deaf Studies Program.

The ASL curriculum starts with basic grammar, vocabulary, and conversational techniques and expands to cover Deaf culture and social justice issues; the Deaf genre in literature, art, film, and theater; media representation of Deaf people; and more.

A student practices ASL in one of Schertz’s classes
Talia Rubeo ’26 signs in class.

“Many students begin with a fascination with the kinetic properties of the language,” says Schertz, a senior lecturer and one of three faculty members who teach ASL classes. “But as they learn it, they also learn its culture and history.”

The class that Tashlik has been taking, led by teaching associate Matilda Prestano, is full immersion, with no talking allowed.

“It’s really nice to be able to communicate in this wordless way,” says Tashlik. “There’s always laughing and joy in the classroom.”

It’s really nice to be able to communicate in this wordless way.

Mollie Tashlik ’26

As Prestano explains, ASL has its own rules for word order and conjugation; the signer’s body language, expression, and emphasis—as well as visual feedback and active attention from the “listener”—are just as important as the individual words themselves.

“English is very linear, word after word after word,” observes bio major Cyan Crayton ’25. “But with ASL you use your face, there’s the location of the sign, the hand shape—all these things factor into the sign itself. And I think that’s really beautiful.”

Schertz teaches during a Deaf Art, Film, and Theatre class
Schertz (far left) in her course on Deaf art, film, and theater.

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Cornell’s plethora of ASL offerings trace their roots to 2012—and, in many ways, to the efforts of Jackie Rachaf ’14, then a sophomore.

Rachaf had taken ASL courses elsewhere, and perceived a dearth of resources for Deaf people in the Ithaca area.

So she founded the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project (CUDAP) with the aim of bringing ASL courses to campus and making it a recognized language in the Arts & Sciences curriculum.

Jackie Rachaf ’14 teaches ASL to club members on campus in 2013
Rachaf teaching club members in 2013. (Cornell University)

For context, Rachaf explains that back then, only one Ivy (UPenn) had an advanced ASL curriculum—despite it being the third most commonly taught non-English language at U.S. colleges and universities, after Spanish and French.

She and others in CUDAP began meeting with faculty, advocated for the curricular additions, and circulated a petition to bring ASL courses to Cornell while also organizing events like weekly signing choirs.

The group also brought Deaf artists to the Hill and led an Alternative Breaks trip to volunteer with an organization that supports Deaf people who are incarcerated.

With ASL you use your face, there’s the location of the sign, the hand shape—all these things factor into the sign itself.

Cyan Crayton ’25

“We attracted a wide variety of students who were curious to learn more,” she says, “and who helped instill a respect for the language and the culture on campus.”

In 2018, Arts & Sciences began allowing ASL to fulfill the college’s foreign language requirement; the first two ASL courses offered during regular semesters were launched the following year.

CUDAP has since become the ASL Club at Cornell, which offers get-togethers, movie nights, and occasional field trips.

A student presents research findings at the ASL Symposium held May 1 in Morrill Hall
A symposium in May 2024 included presentations of student research on Deaf culture. (Provided)

Government major Halle Swasing ’24, the club’s co-president, took her first ASL class to fill the college’s language requirement. She has taken another every semester since, and is graduating this year with the new minor.

“It was really cool to not only be learning a language,” she says, “but also learning about this whole community of people who have their own art, literature, poetry, and humor.”

(Top: Brenda Schertz teaches in Morrill Hall. All images by Sreang Hok / Cornell University, unless indicated.)

Published May 9, 2024


  1. Marisa Brook, Class of 2009

    Fantastic to see. I majored in linguistics and became keenly interested in sign languages and Deaf culture, but started out at a distance from both. I wanted to take ASL classes, but at the time, Cornell offered these only in the summer (with I believe Teresa Galloway teaching), and I repeatedly couldn’t arrange to be on campus then. Somehow it caught my notice that Ithaca College had ASL during the school year, so I went over there on the bus and asked whether I could sort of cross-enroll – but there were no extra spaces, and (understandably) the priority was their own students studying communication. There was very briefly a little sign language club at Cornell in 2006, but otherwise I had to leave it at that during those years. Now, I’m not complaining – I had a wonderful undergrad experience – but yes, a greater emphasis on ASL and Deaf culture/Deaf issues certainly fills a gap, and I applaud Jackie Rachaf and CUDAP and everyone else involved in making this happen.

  2. Elliot Gordon, Class of 1964

    My brother-in-law is 74 and never learned sign language. Is it too late? If not, what is the recommended steps?

  3. Amy Chizk, Class of 1993

    This is fantastic. I started learning ASL in 1991 at NTID during a brief LOA from The Hill. After graduation, I went on to study bilingual Deaf Education at Boston University, and then taught at the Texas School for the Deaf. I’m thrilled Cornell has this program.

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