The Sweet Sound of Success: Dream Award Scholar Aja Leatherwood
By Pam Carlson
Aja Leatherwood, a communication science and disorders major at Case Western Reserve University, found her inspiration growing up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on public television.
“I recall one episode that introduced me to the world of sound and awoke the little scientist in me,” Aja said. “I learned about pitch, frequency, amplitude, and ear anatomy. I would use my finger to open and close my ear canals to hear the differences in sound, talk in spacious rooms to hear my echo and sing into a fan to hear the distortion of my voice.
“My early exposure to Bill Nye influenced my interest in the science of sound significantly. In high school, I enjoyed studying the anatomy and physiology of the ears, nose, mouth, and brain. As a result, I decided to major in communication science and disorders and through this major, I have developed a strong interest in hearing loss and speech and hearing disorders.”
Lauren Calandruccio, a professor and Associate Dean at Case Western Reserve University, recalls meeting Aja during orientation.
“My academic discipline is audiology and hearing science, so it was to my delight when Aja started to tell me about her passion for American Sign Language (ASL), her interest in the Deaf community, and her passion for creating inclusive environments for people who are Deaf and/or hard-of-hearing,” Lauren said. She noted that before classes even actually started, Aja had created an ASL club on campus.
“Under Aja’s leadership the ASL club has grown to be one of the largest clubs on our campus,” Lauren said. “It is vibrant, dynamic and diverse and extremely popular.”
“This past summer I asked Aja to volunteer and help me run a STEM camp I was hosting for 7th graders in my lab,” Lauren added. “Aja created an entire plan to teach students about ASL and to teach the students how to sign a famous children’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? The students absolutely loved it!”
That experience led Aja to apply for Case Western’s Welter-Muzic Undergraduate Fellowship in Child Studies, and she is now working on a project titled “Exposing Students to Careers in Communication Sciences: Innovative STEM Summer Camp Curriculum for Middle School Students.”
“I want to become an audiologist, but I am not sure whether I want to work as a researcher or clinician. Ideally, I would like to be able to do both,” Aja said.
Caring for others has long been a part of Aja’s life. Growing up, she faced a lot of responsibility helping her brother—who has severe autism and requires 24/7 care—as well as a sister who has fibromyalgia. Aja herself lives with lupus, which sometimes limits what she can do, but hasn’t slowed her ambition to succeed.
She discovered the Scholarship America Dream Award through a scholarship search engine, and became a 2023 Midwest Dream Award Scholar.
“With the cost of living and attendance soaring, managing my academics, research, relationships, and, above all, my chronic illness, would have been an overwhelming challenge. Thankfully, this scholarship provides much-needed relief from financial hardships, allowing me to redirect that energy into my professional development,” Aja said. “Thanks to this scholarship I can now participate in an additional program called IMPACT (Innovative Mentoring and Professional Advancement through Cultural Training) which will be instrumental in helping me pursue an advanced degree and navigate the process successfully.”
“Aja Leatherwood is truly exceptional,” Lauren Calandruccio said. “Without a doubt, I believe that Aja will be a change maker and will help to make this world better.”