Leader in Action: The gift of hearing

UND freshman Olivia Taylor turns her own hearing impairment into a dream of helping others hear

UND freshman Olivia Taylor hopes to become an audiologist, a dream career inspired by her own experience of living with a hearing impairment. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

One day three years ago, when Olivia Taylor was in the 10th grade, her world expanded. She could finally hear her dog clattering around the house, the A/C humming, cars chugging on the street. She could even better hear herself.

That day Taylor, who’s now a freshman at the University of North Dakota, got fitted with hearing aids.

“It was like, ‘Whoa’,” Taylor said. “Like an Aha! moment.”

As a child, Taylor struggled to hear. Her mom would call her name, but she wouldn’t even know. At around age 10, Taylor failed her hearing tests. This led to trips to the doctor, who found hearing loss in both ears. With nerve damage, her left ear is particularly impaired.

Taylor is not sure whether her disability is genetic. What she does know is that she wants to turn it into an ability to help others. Taylor’s audiologist, whom she has visited for a decade, inspired her to pursue a career in treating hearing disorders.

“Hearing is a gift,” Taylor said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I want to give that gift to people or help them get that gift.”

And so, this fall, Taylor arrived at UND.

Which was a surprise, because Taylor lives in Grand Forks, graduated from Red River High School and earlier had shunned the notion of going to college in her hometown. But that was before she toured the campus.

“I toured UND because my brother was looking to transfer,” she said. “And then I toured all the other places, and I kept comparing them to UND.”

She learned the University offers a communication sciences and disorders program, which has an audiology and speech pathology balance that proved hard to find at other institutions, Taylor said. And besides, she already has mentors among the faculty in the music department, where she hopes to study singing, too.

When it comes to singing, Taylor said her hearing aids come in handy. Before getting them, she would hear her voice “through the bones, like vibration to the bones.” Now, she can “improve faster or sound clearer, because I can make the connection better in voice lessons.”

Music and singing have been part of Taylor’s life for years, despite her partial hearing loss. Her first musical performance came when she was only 8. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

A mere month into her freshman year, Taylor is juggling a busy schedule. Classes – biology, psychology, music theory, aural skills, and communication – fill her mornings. Sorority functions claim some social time. Voice and piano lessons often fill the rest.

Despite her hearing difficulties, Taylor took to music from an early age. Her first musical performance – with her great uncle’s opera company – came when she was only 8. In the following years, Taylor learned to play the violin, which sounded much louder once she got her hearing aids.

“I can actually hear people playing it and then replay it, which was great because sight-reading violin was really hard for me,” Taylor said.

And despite this busy schedule, she still finds time to volunteer and fundraise with a string of nonprofits – the Hearing Improvement Kids Endowment Fund, the Salvation Army, Special Olympics and Job’s Daughters, among others.

Taylor’s drive to help others stems from the death of her biological father and seeing her grandparents and community pull together to help her family.

“We went through a lot when I was younger,” Taylor said. “But everybody deserves a chance to succeed. We were given that chance to succeed. I want to give other people a chance to succeed, too.”

Whether it unfolds in a charity’s office or an audiologist’s studio, that’s Taylor’s Leaders in Action goal.

For more Leaders in Action stories like this one, visit und.edu/leaders.