NSU alum finds success in grad school and beyond after training her service dog
ABERDEEN, S.D. – For Northern State University alumna Hannah Rose Higdon, moving away from family, friends and the close-knit Northern community to a larger graduate school was a challenging adjustment.
“I was really struggling with being able to navigate and do things by myself because I realized how much I was actually depending on other people,” said Higdon, a 2019 NSU grad with degrees in political science, communication studies and history.
For instance, Higdon, who is deaf, said she had been relying on her roommate when someone knocked on the door, when the oven beeped or when the fire alarm went off.
But in graduate school she was on her own, with the pandemic making it even more difficult because masks prevented Higdon from reading lips.
She realized she needed more help—and she got it, thanks to her dog, Poppy.
Higdon trained Poppy, her four-year-old Maltese-Yorkie, to be her service dog. Now, Poppy has successfully assisted Higdon both at home and various locations out in public.
When Higdon first researched service dogs, she found they were very expensive: $10,000-$15,000. After talking to a friend who trains service dogs and also to her audiologist, Higdon decided to train Poppy. She started by incorporating treats as rewards.
“Poppy is very food motivated,” Higdon said.
Higdon would start set an alarm, and when Poppy would wake her in the morning after the alarm went off, she would give the dog a treat. She also used treats to teach Poppy to lead her to the door whenever someone knocked, and to lead her to the oven when it beeped.
They also did six months of training in public to make sure Poppy wouldn’t be aggressive or bark at other service dogs. Once trained, Poppy accompanied Higdon to classes and the office.
In May 2021, Higdon graduated from Indiana State University with her master’s degree in communications. She now lives in Louisville, Ky., where she works as director of marketing for RosieUp, a change management organization.
Today, Poppy does mostly at-home services because Higdon had bilateral cochlear implant surgery last year, allowing her to hear exceptionally well when she’s out in public. At home, however, Higdon removes the hearing device, so Poppy still assists her there.
Originally from Dupree, S.D., Higdon was diagnosed as hard of hearing at age 5 and had hearing aids since age 6. At age 20, she became profoundly deaf, but she said she navigated well using American Sign Language and reading lips.
Though she struggled in graduate school, Higdon said her time at Northern thankfully gave her the confidence to ask for what she needed to succeed.
“Northern was the first time in my life that I was actually able to get accessibility for my classes,” she said.
Accessibility, Inclusivity at NSU
At NSU, Higdon received classroom accommodations through the Disability Services Office such as note-takers and video captions.
“Those things might seem small, but for someone who has not had access like that, it was a game-changer,” she said. “I graduated Northern with a 4.0 GPA. Once I had those tools, I was able to contribute to my success.”
Higdon was also active on the cheerleading and debate teams, and she said they were very inclusive. When she couldn’t hear the beats, her fellow cheerleaders adjusted. Likewise, Speech and Debate Team members rearranged the usual seating format so she could see the person speaking and read their lips.
“It’s just those little things that made a huge difference so that I could be able to be included,” she said.
Higdon said still keeps in contact with Speech and Debate Advisor Gus Foote and American Indian Circle Program Director Lara Nelson. Higdon, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, did her internship with Nelson and said she was instrumental in helping her transition to college life.
Changing the Narrative
Today, Higdon writes about her experiences growing up deaf on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation on her blog, Deaf Lakota Woman. She’s also proud of her poetry, including a poem she wrote in a class at NSU, as well as a mashup of works by famous deaf artists that she performed, which won first place in Speech and Debate tournaments.
She’s also proud of her volunteer work within the deaf community in Louisville, helping at a local library as an ASL translator during Sunday morning children’s storytime.
When she was growing up, Higdon said, you didn’t often see deaf people on TV. Or if you did, the characters weren’t portrayed in a positive light.
“It kind of creates a negative narrative for yourself,” she said.
Now, Higdon is changing that narrative.
“I’ve never seen myself as disabled, but I’m not ashamed of it in any way,” she said. “But it’s also not the first thing I want people to notice about me. I’m smart. I’m capable. I have a lot of great qualities. And I’m deaf.”
About Northern State University
Northern State University is a student-centered institution that provides an outstanding educational experience, preparing students through the liberal arts and professional education for their future endeavors. A regional university, Northern offers rigorous academics; diverse civic, social and cultural opportunities; and a commitment to building an inclusive environment for all points of view. Northern also offers a broad-based athletics program, sponsoring 15 NCAA Division II intercollegiate varsity sports that compete in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NSIC). The university strives to enrich the community through partnerships such as its Educational Impact Campaign, which opened a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; new athletic and recreation fields; and an on-campus regional sports complex. With the $55 million campaign, NSU has been the recipient of more than $150 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.