Double Triumph: Elmira College Graduates Forge Path to Gallaudet's Audiology Program

Rianna Passino ’23 and Chloe Scheff ’23 stood before the Gallaudet University James Lee Sorenson Language and Communication Center.

When Elmira College Alumnae Rianna Passino ’23 and Chloe Scheff ’23 were sophomores, they jokingly told each other that they should attend Gallaudet University together to earn their doctorates in audiology.

At the time, Passino and Scheff were enrolled in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program along with eight other students. Of their cohort, they were the only ones interested in pursuing audiology. The others concentrated on speech pathology.

While their idea to attend Gallaudet together became a kind of fun dream, they didn’t think it would likely happen. Gallaudet’s well-renowned program only admits 10 students per year. Despite the low odds, when they were seniors, they both applied.

“Ri and I were there to support each other,” said Scheff. “There was always an unspoken competition between us, driving each other to be better.”

Passino described the application process as “tough and fast.” While finishing their undergraduate work, they filled out personal statements, took difficult exams, and spent a day in Washington, D.C. attending multiple rounds of interviews with students and professors. Although intense, the process didn’t deter them.

“I felt like they got to know me as a person and that made me want to go there more,” Scheff concluded. “They weren’t just picking me based on numbers.”

After the applications were submitted came the wait.

“All of a sudden Ri texted and said she got her email and that she was accepted. I looked and didn’t see an email. My heart sank,” shared Chloe. “But then the email came and I opened it and screamed. I also got in! My friends and I were jumping up and down. I called Ri and we were screaming. The thing we talked about in Sophomore year happened.”

“I’ll never forget the day Rianna and Chloe were both accepted at Gallaudet,” shared Dr. James Baer, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Director of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “The three of us were meeting in my office for an advanced audiology class. There was such a feeling of excitement in the room when they shared the news with me and I was so proud of these two exceptional students.”

Double Triumph: Elmira College Graduates Forge Path to Gallaudet's Audiology Program

Scheff and Passino at their Elmira College Commencement Ceremony on June 4, 2023.

Having excelled at EC, the friends continue to make a positive mark at Gallaudet, earning a positive reputation with their graduate professors.

“I have heard that our clinical supervisors are impressed with our clinical skills. That they are above where first years are expected to be,” shared Scheff. “We’ve received positive remarks about how we interact with the clients and supervisors. There have been humbling learnings as well, but it’s a boost of confidence.”

“EC gave us the skills to be prepared for our clinic experience as well as communicate with our peers,” continued Scheff. “We had small class sizes to begin with at EC. That’s why I wanted to go to EC. Our professors encouraged us to talk so Ri and I were the first to raise our hands and ask questions when we didn’t know something. EC taught us to say the wrong thing so we can learn the right thing.”

Passino and Scheff said having an active clinic on campus gave them additional hands-on experience working with patients.

“Coming in with our clinical background set us up for success,” explained Passino. “It allowed us to expand on the basic knowledge being taught while others were just beginning to learn it. I think that’s what the clinical professors really liked.”

Yet above all, Passino and Scheff said their success was due to the individual attention and encouragement they received from Baer.

“EC’s audiology program would not be what it is without Dr. Baer,” Passino remarked. “He made me into the student and future audiologist I am today and he is the man behind all of that.”

“This doctorate program is tough. It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I know I can do it,” said Scheff. “I don’t like to quit. And I don’t need to because I had Dr. Baer, who got me all the way to Gallaudet and continues to root me on. He showed me I could do hard things and I feel good because I enjoy learning.”

Humbly, Baer replied, “Some part of me would love to take even a small portion of the credit for their achievements, but I know that their acceptance to Gallaudet is 100% the direct result of their hard work and dedication to their goals. I consider myself very fortunate to have been afforded a front-row seat to their development and their pursuit and attainment of their goal.”

Double Triumph: Elmira College Graduates Forge Path to Gallaudet's Audiology Program

On National Hearing Day in 2023, Passino and Scheff spoke with Elmira-area high school students at the Elmira College Speech and Hearing Clinic on campus.

That “goal” is another thing the friends share. They are both driven by a desire to enhance options and care for people with hearing difficulties. It’s what they look forward to doing once they earn their doctorates.

“I would love to become a pediatric audiologist who specializes in cochlear implants, and work with families who are deaf or hard of hearing,” shared Passino. “Growing up, two of my best friends were deaf. I met them when I was eight. They were using sign language and I wasn’t. I wanted to learn more about that so they started teaching me sign language and I loved it. My one friend got a cochlear implant (an electronic device implanted past damaged portions of the ear that directly stimulates the auditory nerve.) and I loved learning about his experience and the science behind the cochlear implant. I heard about past experiences with audiologists who weren’t great or did not know ASL and that made me want to go into the audiology field and change that.”

“In my junior year at EC, I started seeing a client who was about five,” said Scheff. “She had hearing aids and her hearing depreciated. Her language development was, in turn, stunted. Dr. Baer and I decided to test her hearing aids and they were not meeting her audiologic needs. If she had better hearing healthcare, she wouldn’t have gone through that so I decided I wanted to bring something better for others.”

Baer looks forward to when this dynamic pair enters the workforce.

Double Triumph: Elmira College Graduates Forge Path to Gallaudet's Audiology Program

At Gallaudet, Scheff and Passino practice video otoscopy on each other during a class.

“I know that both Rianna and Chloe will impact the world and, most importantly, have a huge positive impact on the lives of the patients they serve,” beamed Baer.

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