Groton — When Erin L. Jansen graduated from the Robert E. Fitch High School Friday, she wanted to be remembered for what she's done and who she is — a well-rounded teen who did all she could to excel in her studies, compete in sports and be active in the community.
By all accounts, the busy 18-year-old has done just that, leaving an unforgettable mark on her peers, teachers and high school staff.
She was the co-captain of the high school tennis team this year, a sport she has been playing since she was 5 years old. The high honor roll student and strong academic achiever spent many after-school hours on the literary magazine and yearbook and in community service at St. Sophia Hellenic Greek Orthodox Church in New London, the soup kitchen at Fitch Middle School and the High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Center in Old Lyme, a facility where people with special needs learn how to ride horses.
Described as unassuming, truly exceptional and independent by guidance counselor Josephine Finlayson, Jansen looks and acts like a hard-working student-athlete. But upon closer look, and if she has her long hair pulled back, one can spot the two hearing aids.
Her hearing impairment, first diagnosed when she was 2 years old, doesn't define her. By her standards, it doesn't equate to a disability.
“She's a teacher's dream. If I had 24 of her sitting in my class, I'd be the happiest teacher,” said Charmaine Mizak, the high school's science department chairwoman. “I had her as a sophomore and junior. She just came across a little bit more mature than a lot of her colleagues. She's a quiet girl, but the level of her work, her attitude, was just more developed and more mature. Her persona, it's just who she is. That's just Erin.”
“If you didn't know her. You wouldn't know it at all,” Mizak said of Jansen's hearing impairment.
Doctors told her that the impairment could be traced to a birth defect, Jansen said. The hearing aids, which she sometimes touches to make sure she has them on, help her hear “within normal ranges,” said her mother, Magda Jansen.
Erin Jansen describes her hearing aids the same way someone might describe a pair of eyeglasses.
“It just helps me hear. It just didn't seem like a big challenge that other people have to live with or grow up with, like muscular problems. I think that would be much more harder to grow up with than a hearing aid,” she said. She said her impairment helped her by forcing her to focus more on the academic lectures.
“I wanted to be a normal person with normal interests and with normal experience, socialization and good academics,” she said. “I didn't think I was any different.”
Magda Jansen remembered days when her daughter came home tired. “It's just that listening in class is probably more exhausting for her. A lot of us pick up things. We hear it whether we pay attention or not — you just have to be within earshot. I just think it's more tiring for her,” she said.
But Erin Jansen never asked for special treatment or attention. And when people had concerns about her hearing impairment, she proved it wasn't an obstacle.
Mizak took Jansen with a dozen other highly recommended students two years ago on the school's Bermuda Marine Field Studies program. The teacher admitted she was at first hesitant about including someone with a hearing impairment because the group would snorkel three times a day to conduct field research. But Jansen did well.
Jansen has played the piano, and she sang with the school chorus in seventh and eighth grades while the family lived in Phoenix, Ariz. She got a glowing recommendation from her chorale teacher.
“Erin has done whatever she has wanted to do,” Magda Jansen said.
The Jansens came from Phoenix to the Mumford Cove neighborhood four years ago, when Erin's father, Richard, was promoted to the Danielson offices of Rogers Corp. She concentrated in her first year on getting to know her classmates and teachers. After that she bore down on her studies and tried her best to make the most of her high school career.
Jansen now confesses that she dreaded moving here. But four years later, with such enriching experience as the Bermuda trip and the friendships she has formed, she is thrilled her family moved to Groton, where her mother grew up.
Her mother said the small honors classes and advanced placement classes at Fitch also helped her daughter achieve all that she could.
Now that she has graduated, Erin Jansen is looking forward to starting at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, her parents' alma mater. She hasn't decided yet what she will study. It's a toss up among history, math and English.
After college she's thinking of teaching tennis to children or becoming an audiologist to help hearing-impaired people find the right hearing aids.
“I haven't really decided exactly what I'm going to do yet. I also like writing, too. I have too many interests,” she said.
“I work very hard. I try to have a lot of interests so that I'm not one-dimensional or anything likethat. I'd like to think I'm open minded.”