Graduation feature: UCCS student to hear first commencement address

Tom Hutton, (719) 255-3439, (719) 351-6519,

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Many of the more than 400 students participating in University of Colorado Colorado Springs December Commencement exercises consider the speeches a formality that delays the receipt of a diploma and congratulations from friends and family.

Michael Ballard in front of Columbine Hall at UCCS

But not Michael Ballard, a 29 year old candidate for a bachelor’s degree in communication.

Ballard, deaf since he was 18 months old, will be listening carefully to words of wisdom shared by CU leaders and alumni dignitaries, thanks to a cochlear implant he received a year ago. He’ll also likely watch a sign language interpreter and the speaker’s non-verbal cues as well.

Commencement ceremoniesare scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at the Colorado Springs World Arena. CU and UCCS dignitaries attending will include members of the CU Board of Regents, CU President Bruce Benson, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak and Mike Fryt, a distinguished UCCS alum, who will deliver the commencement address.

“I had the surgery just before finals a year ago,” Ballard said recently. “I’ve been doing lots of training since. Auditory training is a little like physical therapy. It’s tough. I’m training my brain to catch up on 30 years of sounds.”

The decision to obtain a cochlear implant was difficult for Ballard. Mainstreamed into public schools since fourth grade, Ballard is an accomplished lip reader who also observes non-verbal communication cues. He graduated from high school, attended college, married, and had plans to be a real estate agent in addition to employment with a video relay service for the hearing impaired.

The arrival of his daughter, Hazel, changed his perspective, both on receiving the implant and earning a college degree.

“I wanted to hear my child cry and to understand the different meanings in the sounds of those cries,” Ballard explained. “And finishing school became important because I wanted to set an example for her. It wasn’t just for me anymore.”

Hazel, 2, daughter Eliza,five months, and wife, Justine, will be cheering for Ballard, joined by his mother and grandparents, who have seen him progress from disinterested college student to one who hopes to teach, possibly at the college or university level.

“I wasn’t very interested in school and it showed,” Ballard said of his initial studies at a Utah university. “I’ve learned that teaching is rewarding. It’s a great feeling to see someone go ‘Ah, now I get it.’”

Stints as a guest lecturer where he explained deaf culture to students at UCCS helped set into motion his teaching goal, following in the footsteps of his parents and older brother and sister. He recognizes his goal will likely mean additional schooling including a master’s or doctoral degree.

That’s a long way from his first attempt at college in Utah. Ballard is honest about his less-than-stellar academic performance there and his improvement following enrollment at Pikes Peak Community College and summer 2010 transfer to UCCS. For the past three semesters, he combined parenthood and as many credit hours as possible, earning top grades and admiration from his professors.

“The UCCS faculty was great,” Ballard said. “They were very accommodating of having a sign language interpreter accompany me to class and supportive of me. While there is not a large deaf student population at UCCS, a deaf student can be successful here.”

UCCS, located on Austin Bluffs Parkway in Colorado Springs, is one of the fastest growing universities in the nation. The University offers 36 bachelor’s degrees, 19 master’s, and five doctoral degrees. The campus enrolls about 9,300 students annually.