Exclusive: Interview with Sheila Xu

Picture of Sheila Xu at Topkapi Palace

At Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, in July 2015 (where I was giving a presentation at the WFD Congress)

Tell us about who you are and a brief bio about your life and your education pursuits.

I was born deaf to two hearing, Chinese immigrant parents in Austin, Texas. I received a Cochlear Implant when I was 3 years old, and grew up oral since then. I went to school in mainstreamed settings for my whole life, so I was pretty isolated as a deaf student in an all-hearing environment. I wasn’t lacking in friends, but sometimes, I felt no one understood me.

However, I discovered ASL when I was a college sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I took my first ASL class at Harvard, and from there on, I decided I wanted to immerse myself into the deaf community—learning about Deaf history, Deaf culture, and of course, that there are other sign languages other than ASL. After graduating from MIT with a Bachelor of Science degree in Humanities and Science, I decided to spend a year traveling in both US and Europe. I have already delivered two presentations at international deaf conferences this past year about my research (more information below).

Currently, I am trying to start my new travel blog Boarding Happiness http://boardinghappiness.com/, which brings you the latest scoops and perspectives for survival and fun in countries for deaf travelers and expats. Feel free to subscribe and “Like” my Facebook page for updates!

You were formerly a researcher at MIT IROP and a Kelly-Douglas Travel Fellow?  What was that like? What did you learn?

For my undergraduate degree (the Humanities part), I was required to write a thesis. So, that meant I had to come up with a topic. I wanted to challenge myself, travel and learn about other countries, and if I can, an new, innovative topic no one has done before. One day, I was googling around and I came across Dr. Scot Atkins’ dissertation on the lived experiences of deaf entrepreneurs in the U.S (Dr. Scot Atkins is a RIT business school professor).

In his conclusion, he called for more research into “deaf economy.” So, I contacted him, and with his encouragement, I decided to make “deaf economy” the topic of my undergraduate thesis. But, I needed funding. I applied to the MIT IROP, Peter J. Eloranta Undergraduate Research Fellowship, and Kelly-Douglas Travel Fellowship program—All are MIT fellowships. I received about $12,000 total for my research, usually done during the summers, over two years.

With the grant money, I was able to go to places I had never imagined I would be able to go to. I went to California and my first DeafNation Expo in Las Vegas, and then later, live in the center of London, immerse myself into the British Deaf community, and learn British Sign Language. I had met and interviewed many deaf entrepreneurs running successful businesses in both US and Europe.

During that time, you conducted your own ethnographic independent research project for Europe, what did you learn?  For those who might not understand what ethnographic study is, can you elaborate more on what that is?

Ethnography study is a scientific study using the tools of social science to study people and culture. In my case, since there were no previous research on “deaf economy,” my role was to find out what are the attributes of a “deaf economy” and examine if it is an “ethnic economic enclave” (for example, similar to Chinatown and Little Italy). I would go out to visit the sites of deaf businesses and meet the owners, employees, and customers so I can interview them and observe them in their natural settings. In addition, I would head to deaf trade or expo shows because those are the sites were deaf businesses tend to congregate and sell/buy their goods/services….all part of a “deaf economy”!

While I was conducting my research, I came across several findings (they often corroborated with Dr. Atkins’ previous research on deaf entrepreneurs!).

Each country might have their own differences, but there are some common themes we found. Examples are:

  • Passion/motivation is key!
  • “Deaf CAN DO” attitude
  • Work experience helps!
  • Support and networking are important for success
  • Many deaf business owners want to give back to the deaf community, which can include mentoring, support, and networking
  • Greater confidence/satisfaction and autonomy in their lives

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had outlined the requirement to promote self-employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. Hence, we believe deaf business ownership is a human rights issue and an avenue to achieve economic independence for the deaf.

If you want to learn more in-depth about our research, feel free to contact me at sheilaxu@mit.edu.

You seem to never stop learning and researching, what is your plan for the next two years?  

For the next two years? Well, right now, I am planning on moving to Italy soon for an internship for a start-up. The Italian government had mandated a program to bring in non-European Union citizens into Italy to intern for an Italian company. I thought this was a great opportunity to gain more working experience outside of the U.S and work in a startup environment, and of course, improve my Italian and Italian Sign Language language skills!

I am also currently applying for fellowships to spend another year in Italy to continue researching on international deaf communities (Italian) after my internship ends, if I win any! But we’ll see how that goes! Not only that, I am always planning on traveling more to other countries..one of my life goals is to visit all of the countries in the world.

You can say I am an aspiring deaf businesswoman and advocate for the international Deaf communities. My dream is to create opportunities for deaf communities to raise awareness, preserve their language/culture, advance their educational and economic opportunities, and promote their right to quality life, so they can enjoy the social, economic, and educational privileges I experienced in the U.S.

Then, at some point, I will return to the US for a doctorate degree related to the international deaf community, disability studies, or a social science field (maybe continuing research on “deaf economy”)…..so if you have any great Ph.D programs or other opportunities in mind, please contact me at sheilaxu@mit.edu! Or I could set up my own side business….We shall see what the future brings!

And now the infamous Silent Interview!

At what point did realize that you wanted to study and/or be in education for the rest of your life?  

I’m always learning new things everyday, whether I am in school or not! I don’t know for sure if I will be in a formal educational setting, such as an university professor, or become a researcher for life. But first, I must get my doctorate degree or do other cool things. Time will tell!

What is your best research and/or  endeavor that you’re proud of so far?

Clearly, I am proud of my research project on “deaf economy.” I wanted to contribute new knowledge to this nascent field that will hopefully become more robust in the future. Also, I am proud I took the initiative to travel solo for 3 months and visit multiple countries. If I can do it, believe me, you can do it too!

If you could give a young researcher advice based on your experiences so far, what would you recommend that he/she should do?

  1. It’s important to have mentor(s) to guide you and provide support. Even I have years of research experience, I still seek out to my mentors for their advice and feedback.
  2. Have faith in your ability and don’t be discouraged by any set-backs.
  3. Learn to become an excellent grant-writer. Those skills will bring you the money for your research projects in the future.
  4. Be open-minded to new fields or opportunities. I have conducted research in both science and humanities disciplines that are not related to each other at all, but I was able to gain broader skill sets and perspectives than if I were to limit myself to one discipline.
  5. If you feel research isn’t for you in the long-run, don’t be afraid to do something else! 🙂

What is the most craziest travel story you have while conducting your research?

I was staying with a young, hearing Frenchman in Paris for a night in his family house. He was studying to become a LSF interpreter (French Sign Language), and I found him via Couchsurfing. It turns out we were planning on heading to the international Deaf art festival at around the same time, but a day apart!

Since I was trying to save on cost while traveling and researching, I found a Couchsurfing host, a nice New Zealander, in this small town where the festival was held 45 minutes outside of Paris. After a day of the festival, I went back to my New Zealander host’s home to find my host from Paris sitting right there in the living room! He told me he had put in a Couchsurfing request to my New Zealander host, but this guy told him he’s hosting someone else. So, my host from Paris asked him who he was hosting…and he mentioned my name. And my New Zealander host decided to host both of us because we know each other! Crazy, isn’t it?

How do you perceive yourself? How do you want people to perceive you?

Good question. I am an ambitious young woman who wants to dream big, but at the same time, remain empathetic to others and stay true to myself. I also want to make a positive difference in the world…..in other words, “hack” the world to make it a better place not just for myself, but also for everybody and the deaf community.

Completely Silly Random Questions:

If you could be any character in fiction, whom would you be?

Indiana Jones, but without his cocky attitude. 🙂

If you had only six months left to live, what would you do with the time?

Stop working and travel to every continent, including Antarctica, with my loved ones. Every moment is precious.

You have the choice to live with a gorilla who knows sign language or a dog who sings lullabies, which do you choose?

Neither, but I would go with a dog who sings lullabies. They are smaller and easier to take care of!

If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be?

Since you said superpowers….:

  1. Ability to control time and get things done more in a small amount of time
  2. Teleportation (so I can skip out on the cost of paying for airline tickets)
  3. Ability to breathe underwater at any depth (no need for scuba diving equipments)
  4. Ability to make people feel happy around me 😛

If you were a car, what kind would you be?

I would be an Italian Fiat…bright, small, and cute!

My favorite part: The questionnaire concept was originated by French television personality Bernard Pivot on his show Apostrophes, after the Proust Questionnaire.

The ten questions Lipton asks are:

  • What is your favorite word? English: Ephemeral Italian: Che culo
  • What is your least favorite word? Moist
  • What turns you on? The total package: sexy brains paired with sexy inner-confidence.
  • What turns you off? Way too many to count: Sexism, disrespect, douchebaggery, closed-mindedness, Trump-speak, etc. You get the idea.
  • What sound or noise do you love? The sweet lullabies of a piano or orchestra
  • What sound or noise do you hate? The painful jingling sounds coming from a bell.
  • What is your favorite curse word? English: the F word Italian: Vaffanculo (Google this one)
  • What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? A professional nomadic entrepreneur
  • What profession would you not like to do? Any profession where I do not feel satisfied or find my work meaningful. That is one of my life purposes right now–avoid any profession I know I will not be happy in. I do believe we all have the right to pursue any profession that makes us happy, not just because it pays well.
  • If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Welcome aboard and let’s have a good time!

My new travel blog and subscribe: www.boardinghappiness.com

“Like” my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/boardinghappiness

Standing in front of Europe’s largest waterfall, the Gullfoss waterfall, in Iceland in January 2015

Standing in front of Europe’s largest waterfall, the Gullfoss waterfall, in Iceland in January 2015

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