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Amber West

Amber West turns struggles into successes

As Amber West counts down the days until she graduates this spring, she also counts off a series of struggles that she has turned into successes - and it's quite an impressive list.

"First of all, I am hearing impaired. Second of all, I am the first generation in my family to receive a B.A. degree. I am Native American and registered with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. My family has struggled a lot to provide for us. Third, I am majoring in Collaborative Health and Human Services, concentrating in both social work and public health.

"Fourth, I am applying for graduate school and will definitely be the first in my family to get an M.A. Fifth, I was part of the Vagina Monologues last February. Sixth, the most important of all, my husband went to Iraq and was injured…"

West's story begins in Lancaster, just outside of Los Angeles. West's parents knew something was different about their daughter, but their doctor misdiagnosed her with poor vision. She wore glasses for a year until her teacher picked up on the fact that it was her hearing, not her vision that was impaired. The teacher suggested that her parents take her to an audiologist, who correctly diagnosed her when she was 6 years old. "I have no hearing in my left ear and 60 percent hearing in my right ear," explained West.

Once diagnosed, she was pulled from first grade and put in a special education classroom to begin learning American Sign Language. The teacher presented her parents with a difficult decision - did they want their daughter to be part of the hearing world or the deaf world?

"My parents wanted me to have the best of both worlds, at least until I was old enough to make the decision for myself," West said. So they fought - and won - a battle for her to attend mainstream school with an interpreter.

By her senior year, West, who also reads lips, decided she wanted to be more independent and stopped using the interpreter. She continued her education without an interpreter until her junior year at CSUMB, when she realized that the collaborative nature of her major made it difficult for her to catch everything that was going on in the classroom. She tried using an assistive device from Student Disability Resources, but ultimately decided that she preferred working with an interpreter.

West is majoring in Collaborative Health and Human Services, focusing on both social work and public health. She wants to continue on this dual path through graduate school (she's applied to UC-Berkeley and San Jose State) and earn both Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health degrees. Ultimately, she would like to educate children about nutrition, obesity and related diseases. For her Capstone, West is leading a group for 11- to 13-year-old girls at the Salinas Boys and Girls Club. She hopes to empower these young women and teach them about body image, physical activity and healthy eating.

West has also spoken out against the abuse of women. In February of 2006, she was part of the CSUMB production of the Vagina Monologues, where she and her friend Tiffany Ghiorso alternated signing the positive and negative sections of "The Village" while a blindfolded woman spoke the words. "By signing it, making it so visual, it adds another really powerful dimension to the performance," she said.

But perhaps the biggest challenge West has faced was trying to juggle school, work and an internship while worrying about her husband, Evan, who was sent to Iraq just two months after their October 2004 wedding.

Communication was extremely limited and even when they managed to speak by phone, the violence in the area kept their conversations short. Once, she heard an explosion in the background near Evan. "What was that?" she asked, but all she heard from Evan was, "I gotta go," and the click of him hanging up.

Evan was stationed at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Kalsu, Iraq, and shortly after arriving there, he fell off a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and dislocated his shoulder. He popped the shoulder back into its socket and never said much about it, but the injury got worse and worse.

Meanwhile, West was still trying to attend class. "I knew Evan was working really hard in Iraq, and that I needed to work really hard here in school. I knew that's what he would want me to do. I had to stay focused." It wasn't easy. "I realized how emotionally hard it was one day when my teacher asked, 'How are you doing?' and I just started crying in class."

Eventually, Evan's sergeant noticed that Evan no longer had use of his left arm. Unable to pass a basic physical test, Evan was flown to Germany and then home to Fort Irwin in California where he underwent surgery. Finally, in May 2006, Evan was medically discharged from the Army and able to move to Monterey with his wife.

As West's countdown to graduation gets shorter and shorter, she's looking forward to easier times ahead - being finished with her B.A., living with her husband for the first time, and welcoming a new companion into the family.

"I'm getting a hearing dog next summer," she said. "I'm so excited!"