The fetal alcohol syndrome did not stop her. The hearing and vision impairments did not slow her down. And the teachers who said she would never succeed did not deter her.
Although she did not feel comfortable to walk at her high school graduation, Melody Jensen held her head high in May as she accepted a liberal arts degree from Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus.
That milestone was made possible by the help and support of family and Ivy Tech classmates and professors, she said.
Now, the 21-year-old Columbus resident is set to pay it forward. She will attend Ball State University to major in deaf education.
“I want to show kids they can do everything and anything they want to do,” she said. “I want to help kids just like myself. I want to be that cheerleader on the sideline, the buddy and the mentor.”
Adopted at birth by Sharon Andis, Jensen faced challenges from the start.
She shook for the first few months of her life as a result of her biological mother’s alcoholism, and she was born with a heart murmur that could return at any time.
Jensen could not hear, but she did not want to wear a hearing aid. She said the children at school would have made fun of her.
She is very sensitive to light and suffers from double vision — even while wearing her thick prescription glasses.
“When one eye is seeing, the other is not,” Jensen said.
She couldn’t see the board well in class, and she said it was hard to read. She had to come up with her own ways to see the words on the page.
“She was teaching her own mind how to learn,” Andis said.
In school, she was placed in special education classrooms — but that hindered more than it helped, she said.
“They were supposed to be the one’s helping me, but I wouldn’t get it, or I’d be blown off,” she said.
She attended school in Burlington, Vermont, for three years and then landed in Terre Haute, where she attended and graduated from Terre Haute North Vigo High School.
“I had already been told I wouldn’t go anywhere,” she said. “They made me want to go further.”
Despite the challenges Jensen faced, Andis said Jensen was never angry about her circumstances or her birth mother’s decisions.
“She’s done excellent in life despite the cards being stacked against her,” Andis said. “I would say we were pleasantly surprised. She way surpassed our expectations.”
Embracing her differences
Jensen was only 3 or 4 when doctors told her she was suffering from hearing loss. But when they offered options, Jensen turned them down.
“I said no, that would make me look different,” she said.
But after high school, she decided to give them a try.
Now she can hear conversations and hair dryers. She said she cherishes those noises now.
“I couldn’t hear the small things like the birds and the leaves,” she said. “You would be surprised by how many noises people miss because they don’t listen.”
She said embracing the hearing aids was a very big life change, and it made her actually appreciate being outside.
Jensen now dons bright bows on her head and has charms hanging from her hearing aid.
She said she wants the world to know she is unique — she is not just some girl with a disability.
At Ivy Tech, she built a support network of friends and teachers. She went to class early and found the help she needed. She confided in the Office of Disability Support Services and Janet Sharp, the coordinator for the Columbus campus. She befriended her economics teacher.
“I love Ivy Tech,” Jensen said. “It gave me experience and support I couldn’t have gotten at a larger school and allowed me to take advantage of a lot of accommodations.”
Attending school there also taught her she deserves those accommodations, she said.
“I didn’t know who I was, and my biggest obstacle was not being able to self-advocate for myself,” Jensen said. “Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s OK that I’m different.”
Paying it forward
Jensen knows what she wants to be when she graduates from Ball State University: a teacher for deaf students.
But even more, she knows what she does not want to be — a teacher who doubts children because of their disabilities, like the teachers she had in high school.
She chose to move to Muncie because the school offers one of the top deaf education programs in the country.
There, she will live in a dorm on the Ball State campus and also spend a year at the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis.
“I’ll be working hand in hand with those who are actually deaf,” she said.
While she is slightly nervous about the new experiences — she will be living with someone she has never met — she said it is worth it to make a difference for someone else.
“I’m an open book now, but I used to be a turtle in a shell,” she said. “A lot of people, when they meet me, they judge me by my disabilities. But I want to be forthright with people.”
She said her ultimate goal is to earn her doctorate so no one can tell her what she can or can’t accomplish. At that point in her career, she wants to train speech counselors and others on how to work with students with disabilities.
“I have no doubt at this point that she will succeed,” Andis said. “I’m just glad she is pursuing something she loves.”
Jensen said she has no choice.
“Failure is not an option in my case,” she said.