The Sounds from Silence

Tertia “Abby” Jeppson
Tertia “Abby” Jeppson

For nine hours every Saturday and 11 hours every Sunday, Tertia “Abby” Jeppson works a cash register at the local Menards store in her hometown of LaSalle-Peru.

When she sometimes hears her name on the loudspeaker, the NIU senior usually has a good idea why: One of her colleagues is trying to help a customer who communicates through American Sign Language, and the transaction will proceed smoothly if Jeppson is there to translate.

Jeppson, who is proficient in ASL, treasures each opportunity.

“Sign language is my passion,” she says. “It has its own syntax and grammar, just like any other language. I love the visual aspect; facial expressions are huge part of it. That’s what can make it fun.”

Menards must function without her Saturday, Nov. 1, however. That’s the day Jeppson will travel to the historic Old State Capitol in Springfield for recognition as NIU’s Student Lincoln Laureate.

One senior from each of the state’s public and private four-year colleges and universities is chosen each fall to receive the Student Lincoln Laureate, which honors their excellence in curricular and extracurricular activities.

“I’m so surprised,” says Jeppson, 21. “I thought, ‘This is awesome! My professors know me! They nominated me!’ It’s like NIU is giving me a big pat on the back. I’m doing something right, and I’m being acknowledged for it.”

Tertia “Abby” Jeppson
Tertia “Abby” Jeppson

“Abby Jeppson brings energy and competence to every task and meeting she attends. Not only is she is a leader and mentor to other students, she fully engages faculty and the community,” says Sherrill Morris, chair of the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. “She is personable, kind and a true professional. She will represent Northern Illinois University well.”

Sixteen years after Jeppson first learned to sign her ABCs in kindergarten, and only a few years since she aced the one-semester sign language elective class that LaSalle-Peru High School offered, NIU’s top senior says she stumbled into her ambitious academic path.

The University Honors student boasts a GPA of 3.985 in a double major – communicative disorders and rehabilitation services – on top of a double minor in psychology and deafness rehabilitation.

“It’s a good package,” she says. “They all relate so well.”

After taking psychology courses at Illinois Valley Community College, Jeppson reverse-transferred to NIU in the spring 2013 semester and discovered American Sign Language courses available in the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Fascinated by the intersection of neuroscience and deafness, she plunged head-first into speech-language pathology.

Jeppson collaborates with NIU professor Jamie Mayer to investigate the use of a modified version of melodic intonation therapy for individuals with severe aphasia (an acquired language disorder that affects one’s ability to speak and understand). The approach uses singing as a possible augmentation for more traditional approaches of language-based therapy.

She meets one hour each week with an individual with severe aphasia following a stroke, who speaks only three words – “on a Wednesday” – but can fluently sing the lyrics to familiar songs.

Jamie Mayer
Jamie Mayer

The case presents an interesting study as speech and language are left-brain activities while music is a function of the right brain. “She gets more spontaneous words out during our sessions,” Jeppson says.

Professor and student plan to publish their work and present at the annual convention of the Illinois Speech-Language-Hearing Association in February.

“I was so impressed by Abby’s performance in my courses that I sought out her help in working with me,” Mayer says.

“Abby has proved herself not only ‘book smart’ but also extremely capable with regard to both research and clinical roles. She has been trustworthy and thorough, and has demonstrated the kind of patience and empathy that is rare to see among undergraduate students,” she adds. “This is especially noteworthy given that she has had no previous experience in working with the adult neurogenic population nor with research. In short, her learning curve is basically vertical.”

With graduation coming in May, Jeppson is busy applying to graduate schools. After earning her master’s degree, she plans to work in the field in a clinical or medical setting.

She wants to concentrate her professional practice on adult and elderly patients – specifically, those with brain tumors and those who have suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries – and use non-verbal communication in their rehabilitation. Patients who are cold, for example, can express that by making a shivering motion.

“For someone who has difficulty talking, maybe I can make their day better,” she says. “Maybe I can help them get one word out that they didn’t have before.”

Earning a Ph.D. is also on the life agenda. “I want to teach, mentor, work with clients and advance the field. I want to be that person who works to help students find what they really want to do in life – to find that passion,” she says. “It’s the best of all worlds.”

NIU Speech-Language-Hearing ClinicA fixture on the dean’s list, Jeppson has earned several awards and scholarships for her academic achievements. These include the Joan Good Erickson Clinical Interest Award, the O’Brien-Vrba Scholarship Fund, the University Honors tuition waiver, Tau Sigma National Honor Society and Phi Kappa Phi.

Her list of co-curricular and extracurricular activities is equally impressive.

She works alongside ASL coordinator Tina Robarts as the direct teaching assistant for ASL labs at NIU, which includes managing the labs and teaching her own lab. She formerly volunteered at Little Friends in Naperville, which serves children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, to lead employees there in learning basic sign language.

The president of Deaf Pride and secretary of both the Communicative Disorders Student Association and Tau Sigma also is the coordinator of the peer tutoring program in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders.

Next month will bring the annual Deaf Awareness Week, which Jeppson helps to organize with her comrades on the Deaf Pride executive board.

Robarts calls Jeppson a strong student, a hard worker, a role model and a leader.

“Abby is a self-starter, is always on top of things and shares helpful feedback and ideas. She is always one step ahead and keeps me on my toes,” Robarts says.

“She volunteers to jump in and help with any task from the mundane to the challenging. She blends a well-organized, task-oriented style with sensitivity to the needs of our ASL students. She is always willing to give a helping hand over and above her normal call of duty,” she adds. “It makes me wonder if she ever sleeps.”

Tertia “Abby” JeppsonGood question.

Ever conscious of saving money, Jeppson drives her white 2013 Hyundai Sonata between campus and the LaSalle-Peru home she shares with her mother, Tina; her 9-year-old sister, Lily; and her grandparents.

Most mornings find her on the road by 6:30 a.m. to guarantee she nabs a parking spot on campus an hour later. Nighttime returns depend on the day; Monday is the earliest at 4 p.m. but Tuesdays and Thursdays are usually 8 p.m. Wednesday evenings sometimes bring meetings of her various organizations, which can translate to a yawn-inducing 11 p.m. conclusion of the day.

Back home, the former high school cheerleader logs 10 precious hours a week coaching tumbling and gymnastics at the YMCA.

Her third job – yes, third – is in the office of the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders, where her duties include developing mentoring opportunities for alumni and students and other student recruitment and retention activities.

“I’m great at organization,” Jeppson says. “My planner is very full.”

  • Other NIU students considered for the Lincoln Laureate included first finalist Steven Boi (physics) and finalist Natalie Cincotta (history). Also nominated were Dylan Donley and Sandra Gonzalez (Spanish language and literature) and Karissa Kessen (history).
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