Bahai News - Another Barrier Crossed

Another Barrier Crossed ; History Professor Navigates Darkness Of Everyday Life

Suzanne Ament is no stranger to the trials of moving. The unfamiliar surroundings, the anxiety of a new school or job, the isolation of not knowing a soul in your neighborhood were all part of growing up an "Army brat" and, later, part of the restlessness that comes with finding your way as an adult.

Nonetheless, Ament's move to Southwest Virginia in July - and nearly every day that has passed since - has come with its challenges and stressful questions. How will she get to work? Can she handle 150 students at the same time? Will Quinnie, her trusty guide through the darkness that is everyday life, adjust to her new surroundings?

But overcoming barriers has been a major theme of Ament's life.

A 41-year-old assistant professor of Russian history at Radford University, Ament was born with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a rare disease that renders victims mostly blind. Despite her disability, Ament earned a doctorate in a field of study with few braille texts and has mastered not only spoken but written Russian.

After teaching history for two years at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ament once again left behind everything familiar - including the metropolitan setting that is often easier for the blind to navigate - to teach in rural Southwest Virginia. She is one of a few blind professors in the state, joining the likes of Virginia Tech's Virgil Cook, whose pioneering work - such as teaching perhaps the state's first fully on-line course - earned him a lifetime achievement award from Tech.

Midway through her first semester, Ament said she is gradually getting accustomed to her new surroundings, new course-load and new life.

"I just keep telling myself that some day I'm going to say, ' Why did this seem hard?'" Ament said recently.

Born in Germany, Ament lived the typical military life as a child, moving about the country and the world with her family. Somewhere along the way, the young Ament fell in love with the Russian language and eventually enrolled in a Russian studies program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then Georgetown and Indiana University for her graduate work.

At the same time, Ament cultivated her love of music by mastering guitar and honing her singing voice.

"I probably should have been a singer - I love to sing and I love to perform," said Ament, who performs in classes and has played for groups throughout the former Soviet Union.

Instead, Ament discovered a way she could combine her two loves - Russian culture and music - in a scholastic field that involves more oral research than reading through texts. Over the past 20 years, Ament has spent months at a time in Russia and its former Soviet states studying the region's culture through its songs, particularly those from the world war eras. While she still spends a good amount of time reading printed history with the help of study assistants, Ament's specialization allows her to conduct much of her research using oral history.

"It's a lot better than sitting there and waiting for them [study assistants] to find something they think is interesting to read to you, and then it turns out it's not interesting," Ament said with a laugh.

With her light-hearted sense of humor and near-constant smile, Ament is a far cry from the stereotypical ideal of a dry, stern history professor. Her casual demeanor and frank comments seem more akin to her undergraduate students than some of her colleagues.

Those traits, combined with her qualifications as a Russian historian, convinced Radford's search committee to offer Ament the position, said Charles McClellan, head of the history department at the university.

"We were very impressed by her oral skills, and she seems to be a very people-friendly individual," he said.

In the classroom, it would be difficult to determine that Ament is different from any other professor, except that she reads her lecture notes with her hands rather than her eyes and Quinnie quietly naps beneath her desk.

She keeps her sense of humor in the classroom. During a recent lecture on Russia's czars, one student commented on how difficult some Russian words, with their seemingly never-ending string of letters, are to pronounce.

"This is nothing compared to Chinese alliteration," Ament responded. "This sounds like it looks. In Chinese, it's like 'X. How do you say that?'"

Outside class, Ament has assistants to help her with administrative tasks. Students generally submit their work electronically and then Ament uses a speech synthesizer program to read the text. For her research, Ament has also often hired Russian- speaking townspeople to read Russian texts to her, although she fears it may be more difficult to find helpers in the New River Valley.

At the beginning of each semester, Ament tries to be upfront with students and answer any questions they have about her disability. Most are simply curious inquiries, such as how she grades papers, while others ask questions about her lifestyle. Ament said she believes it is important to clear up concerns before moving on with the course.

"I tell them they have to be more proactive," she said. "I can't see if they are perplexed."

Having an adorable black lab around all the time also helps break the ice with people on campus, she said. Before and after any class, while students approach Ament with class-related questions, Quinnie does her own daily meet-and-greet as she nuzzles some students and rolls on her back for some belly-scratching. The 7-year-old black lab has become quite the popular figure on campus.

"My assistant said, 'You can't ever take leave because Quinnie has to stay here,'" Ament laughed.

This is also a time of learning for Ament as well as her colleagues.

Ament's arrival at Radford followed several years of job searching for an elusive job teaching Russian history, a subject that appears to have dwindled in appeal for many students since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ament had only been to Southwest Virginia once before accepting the job at Radford, and that was for her interview. She confesses to having some hesitations about moving to a predominantly rural area; cities are generally more friendly and accessible to the sight- impaired. But she felt a connection with the Radford folks during her interview.

And then there's Ament's belief in "powers" outside ourselves directing us onto paths in our lives. "I really felt this was the way to go," she said.

Now at Radford, Ament finds herself teaching twice as many students as at her previous job at Butler in Indianapolis. She has also had to reteach herself world history for one of her classes.

"It kind of feels like my head is above water, but if a big wave comes, I feel like I'll be swamped," she said.

Ament said she understands those feelings are common for any teacher preparing lectures for a new class and that subsequent semesters will be markedly easier.

Ament has the additional challenge of learning to navigate Radford's campus, with its curving paths that suddenly branch off in different directions. Using the braille map hanging on her office wall and Quinnie's guidance, Ament said she is figuring out how to get around campus.

"I try to learn Point A to Point B, then I try Point A to Point C and then maybe I try B to C," she said.

As long as Quinnie is around, Ament will never have trouble finding Radford's main eatery. "She knows Dalton cafeteria and whenever we go by there, she tries to go in," Ament said. "She knows there's food in there and stuff on the floor."

Outside work, Ament is a first-time homeowner. She lives in Blacksburg, which she chose because of the town's public transportation system, and commutes to work with a colleague. To her delight, Ament found a community of Ba'hai in Blacksburg with whom to practice her faith. Ba'hai is a religion that stresses the universal equality and brotherhood of all people.

Despite the stress, Ament said she is happy in her new job and new life and optimistic about the future.

"To just end up some place and not know where you're going to end up, this is a very good place," Ament said.

Kevin Miller can be reached

at 381-1676 or kevinmi@roanoke.com


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