As far as she can tell, Nicole Fonner, a 2016 Saint Leo University graduate, believes she has been hearing-impaired since birth.
It’s been a progressive hearing loss, she says, so she was not formally diagnosed until she was 5 years old. At that point, she was fitted with bilateral hearing aids and managed fairly well for a few years; however, the slightest bump to her head would cause her ears to swell shutting off all sound and rendering the hearing aids useless.
“Usually this would only last for a few days or maybe a week or two,” she says. “The third time it happened, my hearing just never came back in one ear and eventually I lost full hearing in the other.”
At 14, Nicole received her first cochlear implant (CI) in her right ear and four years later in her left. While she believes the implants are amazing, they have not been the instant miracle many people expect them to be.
“They can be a pain to deal with sometimes,” says Nicole. “It took about a year for sound to be normal. And I get headaches every time I get my CIs remapped.”
The key, she says, is patience.
“If I didn't have patience with myself and with the CI's, I never would have been able to hear what rain sounds like for the first time at 14. I wouldn't be able to listen to all of my favorite bands, hear my little brother giggle, or hear Brandyn, my fiancé, say, "Will you marry me?"
Any challenges, she says, have been well worth the effort to overcome.
And that’s why Nicole’s goal is to use her education and her personal experience to help other people in the deaf community transition successfully to cochlear implants.
“I’m still trying to work out exactly what I want as a career,” she says, “but I’m confident that my background in psychology will help me achieve my ultimate goal.”
And that’s where another character trait of Nicole’s comes to bear.
Finding the right fit
After graduating from high school, Nicole knew she wanted a career helping people. She left Claysville, Pennsylvania for college in Tampa as a nursing major, but one term helped her see that nursing was not the right fit – neither was her first-choice university. Twice she needed to take a semester off due to vertigo issues stemming from her cochlear implants and challenges with the school’s disability department that affected her studies.
Deciding to start fresh, she toured Saint Leo’s University Campus.
“I loved how kind and friendly everyone was,” says Nicole. “But my final decision was made when I met the Assistant Director of Accessibility Services, Chris Georgallis. I had so much trouble previously, and she reassured me that I would not have any of those problems at Saint Leo. This school truly cares about their students and they aim to make sure that no one – no matter their disability – has any issue whatsoever. I knew Saint Leo was the right place for me.”
Nicole transferred to Saint Leo as student at University Campus. She also decided to change her major to psychology.
“When I took my first college-level psychology course, it was love at first lecture,” she says. “It reminded me of why I loved my high school psychology course so much.”
After a year of taking courses on campus, however, further complications with her cochlear implants and a third implant-related surgery ensued. While Nicole needed to move back to Pennsylvania to be closer to family and to her audiologist, she wanted to remain a Saint Leo student.
“The solution,” she says “was Saint Leo’s awesome online courses.”
Advantages of online degree program
In addition to enabling her to move home and continue with her studies at Saint Leo, becoming an online psychology degree student enabled Nicole to work full-time job as an office assistant and to travel.
“I was able to visit Alaska, Ireland and England all without missing a step with any of my classes,” she says.
One thing Nicole says surprised her about online learning was how involved she could be even though she wasn’t sitting in an actual classroom. Not only did she enjoy discussing course literation with her classmates and talking with professors, she appreciated the opportunity to work on a group project via email and text messaging.
“It was super easy to work together and we aced the project.”
Nicole has also stayed involved in extra-curricular activities as an online student, becoming a member of the international psychology honors society, Psi Chi, and Saint Leo’s Psychology Association, which she became president of during her senior year.
“The Psychology Association has been a great way to stay involved, hear fantastic presentations from faculty and connect with other students all around the world. I love that I was able to do an entire presentation on the film ‘Inside Out.’* It was so cool to present on something that wasn’t assigned by my professor. It was even cooler that I was able to speak to one of the psychologists who worked on the film.”
The next step
“Do I want to be an audiologist? A speech therapist? A guidance counselor? I still have time to figure that out,” she says.
Regardless, Nicole believes that majoring in psychology has been indispensable to achieving her goal.
“I have a deeper understanding of why people do what they do, why they react in certain ways, and why they feel the way that they do. This is especially important to me because I need to be able to understand the side of the deaf community that disagrees with cochlear implants,” she says.
“My main career aspiration is that – whatever it is that I'm doing – I am helping someone. That's all I've ever really wanted. And I have learned that I can do anything I set my mind to. My experience at Saint Leo has helped me prove that to myself – and no disability can change that.”
*Click here to watch Nicole’s online presentation to the Psychology Association on the film “Inside Out.”
Image credits: Courtesy Nicole Fonner