Creating bonds through American Sign Language

By Amanda Duchsherer
Digital Communication Specialist

MINOT, N.D. – Sometimes a warm bowl of soup makes all the difference.

When MariDon Sorum was asked to reprise her role as the women’s basketball team faculty liaison for a second year, she knew last year’s events — bonfires, Christmas cookie decorating, and dinners in her home — wouldn’t work in a world of physical distancing.

“This year, it’s a whole new ballgame,” she said. “When coach Graupe (Mark Graupe, Minot State head women’s basketball coach) contacted me at the end of August and asked if I’d do it again, I said absolutely. Then I thought, how am I going to reach out to the team? I can’t really be where they are. Some of them have been quarantined, and everything is upside down in our world.”

The Minot State University American Sign Language (ASL) instructor decided she would have to meet the players where they were.

“I needed to let them know we care about them. I remember, years ago when I was in college, it’s really hard when you’re away from home,” she said. “You’re an adult, but it’s also this time where everyone has to be isolated and it can be really frustrating.”

With the help of friend Sally May, Sorum prepared individual containers of soup, fresh bread, brownies, and inspirational messages. Then she made deliveries around town with women’s basketball players Haley Hildenbrand, Hailey Roberts, and Breianna Smestad.

“We went to every apartment, every home, every dorm, and we surprised them. It was so fun to see their faces,” Sorum said. “If we can do something little like this for other people, that’s what it’s all about.”


Hildenbrand, professional chemistry major and women’s basketball team captain, considers Sorum more than just her faculty liaison.

“MariDon is my North Dakota mom, and I’m her Colorado daughter,” Hildenbrand said. “We’re really close, she really does treat me like one of her kids, and I love it.”

Hildenbrand first met Sorum while taking her ASL class.

“I remember that class like it was yesterday. She’s so hands on. ASL is a hands-on class, but she would always take the time to reshow you the signs if you didn’t catch them,” Hildenbrand said. “She’s really helpful, you don’t have to squirm or stress too much about getting help.

“We love her as our liaison, we love her as a person. I tell everyone I run into to take her class because she’s such a wonderful person to be around.”

Thanks to the enthusiasm of Sorum, ASL has become a part of the women’s basketball team culture. In addition to using the language on the court, they have also performed the National Anthem prior to a game.

“They have a Deaf man sitting on the bench as the water guy,” Sorum said. “They’re practicing with him, Andy May, and they’re signing water to him, and it’s adding a whole dimension to communication.”


Sorum doesn’t just believe in immersive learning. It’s how she learned ASL herself. After graduating with a degree in social work, she didn’t know what career to pursue.

“There is such a wide variety in social work,” she said. “And there was an opening in the dormitory at the North Dakota School of the Deaf in Devils Lake. I knew nothing about sign language. Nothing,” she said. “I was with 18 high school girls in their dorm and I learned from the Deaf. I learned their slang. I was immersed with the Deaf culture and I absolutely loved it.”

Her job path eventually led to employment in the aging services division at the North Central Human Service Center, in addition to becoming a certified interpreter for the Deaf. As she reached her years for retirement eligibility with the State of North Dakota, Minot State University Department of Special Education Chair Holly Pedersen reached out to Sorum.

“She asked if I’d consider coming over and teaching sign language. At that point, I thought that sounded like a lot of fun, so I jumped in,” she said. “I just love what I do. It’s not work because I’m doing what I like — I like to teach people how to communicate in other ways.”

Sorum’s classroom approach has led to unique learning opportunities and closeness among her students. It isn’t unusual for high school students, older-than-average students, student-athletes, and people from all majors creating close bonds by the end of each semester.

“I’ve had students become roommates after the class because we started bonding through sign language,” she said. “We begin to feel like family.”

That family feel is something Sorum continues to cultivate during remote learning.

“When I have classes online, I try to give students the first five minutes to see how their life is going. I want to connect with them. I can be talking to them on Zoom, and suddenly, you’ll see a cat’s tail go across. So, we had a class where they showed their pets online, and I showed them how to sign those animals,” she said. “They’re learning cat, dog, and learning to spell the name of their pets — and they’re connecting with one another.

“I’m a strong believer in, if you let students know you really care about them in class, they’re going to respond even more. It’s important to make that humanistic connection.”


About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 11/05/20   

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