The Advocate

Alicia Lenon walked into the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence entirely by accident, but when she did, she saw a familiar face on the wall behind the reception desk.

“I was actually looking for another department, and I saw Dr. Crim’s portrait on the wall,” she said. “[And] I saw the images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. Crim’s mentor, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, and I knew I was at home. I was in a place where I could carry the torch that Dr. Crim lit for us to carry and share in our communities.”

It wasn’t long before Lenon became a fixture in the center, located in the College of Education, working on grant proposals and awards, sharing her insights on urban issues in education and making a difference for students with disabilities – all while continuing her studies in the college’s Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education.

Lenon is studying deaf education with Susan Easterbrooks, who specializes in language, literacy and learning in deaf children. This subject hits close to home with Lenon, who herself is deaf.

“Dr. Easterbrooks has been very instrumental in guiding my steps through the program so that when I had the chance to step into the classroom, it felt natural,” she said. “I want to share my success with other people who have disabilities, and to give students a strong foundation.”

She did her student teaching in kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms at Suder Elementary in Clayton County, working alongside teachers to help children with profound to severe hearing loss.

Lenon oftentimes plans her lessons around hands-on activities that demonstrate the concepts and vocabulary she’s trying to teach. The technology for children who are hard of hearing – including hearing aids, specialized headphones and closed captioning – have improved since she was in school, and make a difference when she’s planning her lessons.

For many of her students, Lenon is an invaluable resource – she is fluent in sign language and understands the difficulties they face when trying to learn the same concepts as their peers.

“When I was their age, I didn’t have someone who understood what it’s like to be deaf,” she explained. “The kids look forward to seeing me every day, and I try to do as much as possible to help them learn. It’s a difficult job, but I do the best that I can.”

Lenon has worked with teachers, parents, faculty and students, gaining insight not only into how to work with children with disabilities but also how to advocate for their rights. She speaks at staff orientation and student-learning workshops in the Crim Center to encourage dialogue about people with disabilities and has worked with officials at the Durban University of Technology in South Africa about inclusion for deaf students.

“We need to be a leader in helping people with disabilities,” she said. “We need to set the example for other universities.”

In recognition of her work, Lenon received a 2011 Sparks Award from Georgia State University. Named for George McIntosh Sparks, the university’s first president, the Sparks Award is given to select faculty, staff and students who exemplify a willingness to go the extra mile with good humor and perseverance.

“I was really shocked,” Lenon said about winning the award. “It was surreal for me. Sometimes we feel like the things we’re doing aren’t appreciated, but the slightest contribution can make a difference.”

Lenon will finish her master’s degree this spring and hopes to find a teaching job at a school in Atlanta where she can be a role model for her students.

“I really want to work with kids – that’s what keeps me going,” she said. “And I want to take what I learn and apply it to a Ph.D. program. I’m trying to take small steps toward learning how to help all people with disabilities.”