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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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