Non-traditional Students from the Department of Linguistics and English Language Share Their Stories

The Department of Linguistics and English Language boasts a variety of successful students with traditional and somewhat less traditional backgrounds. Jerry Snow, Mary Bonham and Mary Peterson, recent alumni of the department, share their stories.  

PROVO, Utah (Apr. 28, 2017)—From newborns to retirees, the Department of Linguistics and English Language is home to a surprisingly comprehensive age demographic. Recent graduates Jerry Snow (Linguistics M.A., J.D.), Mary Bonham (Linguistics M.A.) and Mary Peterson (English language B.A.) share what made their experiences as students in the Department of Linguistics and English Language unique.

Jerry Snow is the oldest master’s student ever to have graduated from the linguistics master’s program at BYU. Though Snow was in his 70s when he started his master’s degree, his love of life-long learning motivated him to go back to school after a long career as a lawyer at the firm Ray Quinney & Nebeker in Salt Lake City.

“When it came time to retire, I went on a mission with my wife to Italy,” Snow recalled. “When we came back, I said I didn’t want to go back to work full-time, but I’d always wanted to go back to school. I love school. I love being on campus. At that point I thought I would like to study language. Not languages, but the structure of language.”

Snow, who already spoke German, Italian and French, decided he would rather learn about language than learn a new one, which is what prompted him to enroll in linguistics classes at the University of Utah.

Yet when Snow finished his second undergraduate degree, he wasn’t quite satisfied. Snow decided to continue his work in linguistics by enrolling in the master’s degree program at BYU, where he specialized in syntax, or the underlying structure and common basis of language.

Snow’s experience coming back to school after retirement was, of course, different from how younger students experience school. “I certainly had lots of experience in researching and writing and thinking as part of my career,” Snow said. “I wasn’t worried about social life because I was married. I didn’t have to worry about my finances, so I could focus more directly.”

Snow joked that he sometimes had to point out to students on the first day of class that he wasn’t the professor, but Snow admitted that his age may have helped him get along with the professors better than the younger students could have. “I may have had an advantage that way because I felt like I was more of a peer with the professors than I perhaps would have felt if I was 24 years old,” Snow said. “I could talk on an equal level. Of course, they knew everything about linguistics that I didn’t know, so I tried to learn from them.”

Snow has always had a love for learning, especially the humanities. Though he began his schooling at Stanford hoping to study physics, he finished instead with a degree in English. “I enjoy English and literature,” Snow said. “I also like to write. I studied creative writing at Stanford and at the U, and I’ve just always loved words and language.”

Snow added, “And with the law, my stock and trade is words – persuasion and being able to write correctly and articulately. It was no great leap to go from there to the study of linguistics.” 

Snow hopes that old age will not deter those who have a passion for learning or are considering going back to school. “Never stop learning,” Snow advised. “If you enjoy learning, go back to school – have fun.”

Mary Bonham, now an alumna of the Department of English Language and Linguistics, had a very different approach to academia. When it came to education, Bonham’s family was split. Her mother was never able to finish high school and was uninterested in encouraging Bonham to further her education, but Bonham’s father pushed her to get at least an associate’s degree.

Bonham finished her associate’s degree in ’75, just as her father had hoped. Though she figured she was done with school after that, Bonham joked that God had other plans. One year after receiving her associate’s degree Bonham joined the Church, which is when American Sign Language suddenly began to play a role in God’s plan for her life.

Bonham, who only knew how to fingerspell in sign language at the time, felt inspired one evening by another convert who knew sign language that she needed to learn more about interpreting. She started buying books on sign language and taking manual communication classes.

“People asked, ‘Why are you learning this?’ And I would say, ‘Heavenly Father has a plan, I don’t know why,’” Bonham laughed. That plan became a bit clearer when a Deaf ward in Los Angeles was split and moved into Bonham’s church building in Hermosa Beach.

“We had 200 deaf people show up,” Bonham recalled. “My friend said the walls were ringing with, ‘Where is Mary Bonham?’”

Bonham became officially certified as a translator in ’81 and has worked as an interpreter ever since. Though Bonham had never planned to go back to school, God had other plans for her yet again when in 2005 Utah Valley University (then UVSC) started a Deaf studies program. Bonham decided she would go back to school for a bachelor’s degree.  

“One day in one of my classes the teacher wore this t-shirt that said, ‘Got Master’s?’ I was thinking, ‘No, never.’ But then my friend said about a year after my graduation, ‘We should go get our master’s degrees.’”

Bonham continued, “I applied and got in because God wanted me to, not because of any other reason. When I took the G.R.E. I told Heavenly Father that to be accepted into BYU, I would need to get a score of 1,000 or above, so I got 1,070. God had a plan. He needed me in there with Dr. Lonsdale.”

Dr. Deryle Lonsdale, an associate professor of linguistics and English language at BYU, was a crucial influence during Bonham’s time as a master’s student. One day Steven Richardson, who was hired by the Church to work with translation after helping to develop Google Translate, asked Lonsdale if the department had any A.S.L. master’s students, and Lonsdale knew just the person.

“Dr. Lonsdale reached out to me and said, ‘The Church has a project for you.’ I burst out crying because before that I had no idea why I would get a master’s,” Bonham said.

As a result of going to graduate school, Bonham was able to work with Lonsdale to assist in machine translation research for American Sign Language – a low-resource language that often presents challenges to machine translation. Bonham’s thesis was featured on the top ten list out of 30,000 theses written at BYU. It has been downloaded in over 50 countries and was the most viewed thesis throughout all of 2016.

The youngest “unofficial” student in the Department of Linguistics and English Language is recent graduate Mary Peterson, who was just three weeks old when she attended her first English language class at BYU.

Peterson’s mom was a student in associate professor Dallin D. Oaks’ intro to English language class when she brought three-week-old Mary to class with her. “Most of her professors were okay with the little baby coming to class, but Dr. Oaks had also had a child about the same time that I was born, and so he was a little hesitant, because he knew children my age could make a lot of noise,” Peterson joked.

Peterson said her mom talked Oaks into a trial period of a week. Peterson said that she must have been well behaved because she was allowed to come to class with her mom for the rest of the semester.

“I guess that was kind of my introduction to the major,” Peterson said.  “My mom and I like to joke that I was always meant to study English language from the day I was born.”

Peterson continued, “I’ve always been interested in reading and writing, language, and how language works. “My mom suggested that I look into the [English language] program and see if I liked it because she felt that it would fit my interests, and it was something she had really enjoyed.”

Now that Peterson has graduated, she hopes to one day work for a publishing house. During her time as an undergraduate she completed an internship at a science fiction publishing house called Future House, as well as a technical writing internship with a project management software company.

Looking back on her time in the program, Peterson recalled, “My first class at BYU was intro to English language with Dr. Oaks – the one that I had sat through as a baby. And his son, Michael, was also in that class, and he was the child who was born the same time that almost kept me out of my mom’s class.”

She concluded, “It was this full circle. Dr. Oaks started with my mom, and now I’m here.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17) 

Sylvia Cutler writes articles featuring the Department of Linguistics and English Language for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photos courtesy of Jerry Snow, Mary Bonham and Mary Peterson. 

Top: Jerry Snow

Middle: Mary Bonham and Bob Bonham, her husband, at the BYU Traditions Ball.

Bottom: Mary Peterson graduating with her mother in 1994.