MIT sophomore James Snyder is hard of hearing.
The 21-year-old architecture major gradually lost his hearing over the first year of his life. At age two-and-a-half, his parents took him to learn sign language.
Snyder now communicates with faculty, students, and staff through signing, lip reading and written and spoken English. An interpreter accompanies him to all his classes.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating talking to people, especially if it’s a point that I really want to understand and I still haven’t gotten it after three times,” says Snyder, who recalls one class where a professor spoke English with a thick accent. “That was a big challenge,” because he says, “my interpreter couldn’t understand him either.”
“He’s a wonderful, open guy,” Architecture Prof. William Hubbard says of Snyder. “He is a real spark plug in the class, always asking questions and making jokes.”
A native of Glendale Heights, Ill., he went to public high school, where his toughest class was English. Always, he says, his parents encouraged him, especially when he got good grades.
He began daydreaming about attending MIT when he was a high school sophomore. He had read an article in Scientific American about hyperinstruments, an invention at the Media Lab. So dazzled was he by the technology that he read as much as he could about the Institute.
The son of a printer and a bookkeeper, Snyder says acceptance to MIT is the proudest accomplishment of his life. He clearly remembers the day shortly after Christmas in 1996 when he first learned he was accepted.
The mail fell through the slot and his mother handed him an envelope from MIT. “I tore it open and it said that I was accepted early decision. The first thing I did was hug my Mom and Dad.”
Loves to read
Snyder reads voraciously, immersing himself in fiction, biographies, science fiction, and historical Christian literature. He spends hours at the library and sometimes reads up to six books a week.
“I generally don’t make a lot of friends. More often I’m off in my own little world reading. I try to be friendly. I don’t think it’s that difficult to make friends, but” (he shrugs) “I don’t know.”
Sometimes, he says, he misses his four closest friends from his church back home, all of whom are in college in Illinois. Also back home are his parents and three brothers, all who are hearing.
He says he is as comfortable with hearing people as he is not. “Most of my life I’ve had hearing friends. Almost nobody in my family knows how to sign. My Mom knows a little. She’s the one who knows the most.”
At MIT Snyder is on the varsity crew team and belongs to a Christian group on campus. He also enjoys several pastimes.
“I like to play cards, but nobody at MIT seems to play,” says Snyder, adding that MIT students prefer to spend time at the computer. Back home, he owns more than 200 movie videos. All closed captioned. “I love it when I understand what’s going on.”
Although he must turn the volume way up, he also enjoys listening to music. Largely, he feels the vibration.
“I do pretty well listening to music but unless they print the lyrics, I could go on for a year thinking they are singing something else. I don’t catch all the subtleties of music, but I enjoy it,” says Snyder, who often listens to classical music and whose favorite piece is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
He says it is the Christian group at MIT that brings him his greatest pleasure. “The church is very much part of my life. I don’t want to be just someone who goes to church every Sunday, but someone who continually tries to put Christianity into practice,” says Snyder, who believes in being kind and caring to others, and who also believes in equality for all people.
He says that what most clearly defines him is his self-initiative. “I’m not afraid to take risks. Even if I fail, I try again. I can be pretty tenacious. When I get started on an idea,” he says, “I don’t let go.”