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KNOXVILLE — Leah Wilkerson has a passion for military life and interacting with individuals with disabilities. A junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, her goal is to combine these two interests to make a fruitful career.

Wilkerson, who is majoring in special education with a concentration in educational interpreting, began learning sign language at age 12. She initially learned to sign from the Tennessee School for the Deaf through a volunteer effort. She continued her dedication to signing at Pellissippi State Community College, where she received her associate’s degree.

Although she is not deaf, she is enthusiastic about working with hearing-impaired Americans and influencing their lives. Her desire to continue her interpreting education jumpstarted her allegiance to ROTC.


“In my first semester at UT, I had a sign language class with one of the cadets,” Wilkerson said. “Before that, I didn’t really know anything about ROTC. I didn’t go to public high school, so I hadn’t heard about it. I never really had an avenue to do this. Then I set up the plan to go to the Leadership Training Course and see if it was something I wanted to pursue.”

Wilkerson participated in a four-week Leader’s Training Course (LTC) aimed at encouraging college students to enter the Senior ROTC program. Held in Fort Knox, Ky., the training included ropes courses and basic rifle marksmanship.

“The training course is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Wilkerson said. “Shooting the M16s was my favorite part.”

Although sign language and ROTC don’t typically go together, Wilkerson strives to lay the foundation for both skill sets.

“My focus right now is honing my interpreting skills and also trying to become an army officer when I graduate,” Wilkerson said. “I don’t know that anyone has ever combined the two before or if it is possible. Whether I do both at the same time or if I do one first and then the other, I think it’ll all work out.

“I’ve learned that deafness is a culture in itself,” Wilkerson said. “They have their own way of doing things and outlook on life. It’s a really special minority group.”

She plans to go into active duty when she graduates in May 2012.

To learn more about Wilkerson and her work in the ROTC and with deaf Americans, visit


Bridget Hardy (865-974-2225,