MODESTO — Smiles bubble up from her fingers.
Nicole Sanchez lost her hearing as a toddler but reads lips and signs with whiplash speed. She'll walk the Modesto Junior College stage May 3, graduating with an associate of science degree in culinary arts and ambitions to be a school chef.
The Livingston mom took a bow Friday for another honor earned, the 2013 Disability Services Student of the Year, at the office's party for its graduates.
MJC serves roughly 1,000 students across a spectrum of needs, and about 20 of them are deaf or hard of hearing, said testing center staffer Kim Jordan. The student of the year selection covers the challenges overcome, academic success and great attitude, Jordan said, and Sanchez, 33, qualified on all three.
The avid baker started at MJC with a cake decorating class in 2007. She earned a 3.3 GPA with perseverance and a little help from MJC translators and classmates willing to take notes on two-sheet carbonless paper and share.
Her toughest class? English -- she signed and Jordan translated. American Sign Language was built for speed, not refined grammar. But Sanchez, 33, passed required composition classes and made it through MJC's culinary arts curriculum before budget cuts closed the program two years ago.
She earned certificates in culinary arts, food safety and cake decorating, in addition to her associate degree.
Sanchez likes school and plans to go on, she said. But first she wants to spend time with her children, ages 14 and 9. Both hear, but they also sign. "They're lucky to have a mom who signs," say flying hands beneath a beaming face.
Sanchez volunteers every Thursday at the Merced County Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center. She's worked as a janitor and shelved books at a library, but hopes her next job will be cooking for a school district. Students could expect to enjoy her signature dish, lasagna.