Fairfax’s Will Andes lost his hearing as a newborn. A preemie, he developed an infection, and a high bilirubin level plus treatment with the antibiotic gentamicin caused a profound hearing loss.
But he didn’t let it hamper his desire to accomplish to lead as normal a life as possible and accomplish worthwhile things. And now, he’s one of just five students in North America to receive a Graeme Clark Scholarship from Cochlear Americas.
Named after the inventor of the cochlear implant, it’s for $2,000/year for up to four years and goes to students who’ve overcome deafness and achieved academic and personal success. Andes was chosen by a panel of judges from more than 150 applicants.
“I found out about the scholarship in my senior year at Woodson High,” said Andes, now 20. “I applied, but didn’t get it; so I reapplied in my sophomore year at UVA.” This time, he got it and was thrilled. “I’m going to put it toward tuition,” he said.
It’ll also help his parents, Martha and Steve Andes, who also have two daughters to put through college. Gillie, 17, is a Woodson junior and Sydney, 13, is a Frost Middle eighth-grader.
AS A TODDLER, Will wore hearing aids. “The first sounds I heard were my parents talking,” he said. “But everything was muffled, so I had trouble understanding what they were saying. I wanted to hear a lot; and whenever I felt like I was missing out on something, I was frustrated and had to ask for details.”
So his world changed dramatically when he received a cochlear implant at age 4 1/2. “I was amazed at how much sound I was hearing,” said Andes. “I’d built a Lego structure and, when I knocked it over, I was surprised at how much noise it made.”
Although he can read lips a bit, sign language was never his thing. “My parents wanted me to become mainstreamed in the public-school system,” he said. “I took an ASL [American Sign Language] course at UVA, but didn’t like it. In my opinion, it’s a little vague, with similar signs meaning many different things, and I prefer hearing interactions.”
Originally from Chico, Calif., Andes and his family moved to Virginia in the beginning of his junior year at Woodson. “In California, I was the only disabled kid in the whole school and was in the top 2 percent GPA,” he said. “Here, it was more competitive and intense, and that shocked me a bit. But there were more opportunities at Woodson, which has a deaf-and-hard-of-hearing program. I participated in a deaf academic bowl there and we did really well and went to the championships.”
In California, Andes ran track and cross country and was on the crew team. He did cross country and track and Woodson, too, while doing volunteer work and advanced studies. During his senior year, he received his second cochlear implant.
“I wanted to be able to hear better in group or noisy situations like cafeterias and auditoriums,” he explained. “But it took awhile to get used to it. I use both of them now; the old one provides more clarity so I can understand people better. My brain recognizes those nerve stimulations it’s been used to its whole life, and the new implant gives me an extra boost. My left ear has the old one and my right ear has the new one.”
“I can hear pretty well, but I still watch TV with closed captions so I won’t miss anything,” continued Andes. “I usually take them off when I go to bed because I like the peacefulness and not having distractions. I have a bed-shaker alarm clock that shakes me awake in the morning.”
HE SWITCHES easily between the hearing and deaf worlds. He said people first learning about him initially think his disability is a burden on him. “But I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “I consider myself part of the hearing world.”
Basically, said Andes, “If I didn’t have my cochlear implants, I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s because the deaf world is limited in its opportunities because of their disabilities – having to use ASL or captioning or audio devices. The hearing world is the majority and you have to do a little extra work to communicate with deaf people in their way.”
“The cochlear implant has impacted my life tremendously,” he continued. “It provides me access to the hearing environment where I can hear and talk with people and listen to amazing music and all the dramatic and interesting sounds in life. It has enabled me to be fully mainstreamed.”
At UVA, Andes has a 3.4 GPA and is majoring in mechanical engineering. He’s considering a career in marine engineering, working for the Navy or building or designing ships or submarines. “I’m interested in how things work under water, especially submarines,” he said. “UVA’s a great school; I like Charlottesville’s college-town environment and I have a whole network of really good friends.”
In his spare time, he enjoys fishing, going to movies, playing dodge ball, snowboarding, running and exercising. As for the scholarship, Andes said, “I was honored; it was nice being one of the five people to receive it. It’s a reflection of what I’ve done in the past – achieving so much success while overcoming my disability.”