Sonya Wilson sits with her hearing dog, Stacy, on top of Mt. Baldy.
Sonya Wilson sits with her hearing dog, Stacy, on top of Mt. Baldy.

Sonya Wilson ’97 Climbs Her Mountains

by Nathan Foster

On a beautiful June day in 2014, Sonya Wilson ’97 gazed out from high atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, knowing she had achieved something remarkable. Yet, even a 19,341-foot mountain paled in comparison to the numerous obstacles Wilson has overcome in her life.

Wilson was born deaf and three and a half months premature. Her twin sister passed away at three days old and Wilson remained in an incubator at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for the first five months of her life. Her childhood, spent in a rural area outside of Las Vegas, was fraught with many challenges, the biggest being communication. “My mother didn’t learn sign language,” she said, so Wilson adapted to communicate in other ways. “I learned to identify body language, to recognize emotion in her eyes, to determine if she was angry, or in a good mood, or if everything was okay.”

While life at home was difficult, Wilson encountered even bigger hurdles at school. “I found myself behind, very delayed. There wasn’t enough support for deaf children back then,” she said. Wilson recalled being isolated with the other Deaf students in a separate room. “It was just us together, but we shared experiences and expressions.” During lunchtime and recess, Wilson and her school family would gather together in a corner outside and use “home signs” and some American Sign Language (ASL), far from the other kids. “We would just sign away, sharing stories and having fun, enjoying each others presence and communication,” she said.

Her refuge during these early years became nearby Red Rock Canyon, where she discovered her passion for rock climbing. “I started going there when I was only five years old. I loved climbing trees and rocks and just being outdoors,” she said. When Wilson was 11, her mother passed away, and she moved back to Southern California, to live with her aunt’s family. “My aunt did a fantastic job raising me. She helped me catch up on so many things,” she said. “It was hard for me to adjust to this new life, but I adapted as I always did. My aunt knew I was athletic, so she put me in soccer and softball where I excelled.”

Wilson enrolled at Foothill Christian School in Glendora, and her education improved significantly. It was here that an eighth grade science project served as a major stepping stone to her future. “I went to a science fair on the campus of Azusa Pacific University. It was the first time I had set foot on a college campus and I remember being very impressed.” Wilson knew this was the place for her. “I struggled through high school, especially in math. I remember someone once telling me that I would never be able to go to college. I just said, ‘Watch me.’ And I did. I got into APU.”

Wilson decided to major in English and minor in art, and although she was excited to begin college, it wasn’t easy at first. “I struggled. I repeated some classes,” she said. “But I didn't give up because APU is a wonderful university. It was one-on-one. I didn’t feel lost in the crowd.”

With the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Wilson’s freshman year, APU began providing interpreters for most of her classes and academics became much easier. In 1997, Wilson became the first Deaf student to graduate from APU. She has gone on to have a successful career, serving as an ASL instructor for more than 20 years, teaching at diverse levels including high school, college, and adult education centers. She has also worked as an ASL consultant and coach for prominent companies in the entertainment industry, designing workshops for Dreamworks and the Mark Taper Theater. Most recently, Wilson built ASL programs for local school districts, including Pasadena Unified.

To expand her professional opportunities, more than two decades after graduating, Wilson has returned to APU to pursue her master’s degree in education and her third teaching credential. “This has been by far the best educational experience of my life as education is far more accessible these days compared to how it used to be,” she said. “The Learning Enrichment Center (LEC) has employees who know sign language and they make sure I have the access I need to thrive.”

When Wilson isn’t at school, she is usually outdoors. “For me, I feel God the most when I’m out in nature, when I’m hiking on the mountain,” she said. Wilson shares her adventures on Facebook and Instagram under the name Deaf Climber. She also leads two Facebook groups, California ASL Hiking Network and ASL Climbing Network, for deaf and hearing people. Each group has hundreds of members and she has made good friends through these connections. “I wanted to create a space for those who love the outdoors and ASL.”

For Wilson hiking provides an outlet for social interaction as well as personal space to reflect. Many years ago, she came to a major realization on a trek. “I realized I wasn’t living my best life. I was trying to match what other people think of me, what they expect and envision of me. I was adapting to them,” she said. “To honor who I am as a Deaf woman was important in my journey. Being Deaf enhances and enriches my life. This is how I was made and this is what God gave me. Being Deaf is beautiful.”

Read this REI blog to learn more about Wilson and her ASL climbing groups.

Note: An interpreter was provided for this interview by the LEC.

Nathan is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. He is a double major in journalism and public relations.