In his teens, Marko Vuoriheimo dreamed about a professional career as a top athlete or artist. In many respects, he has become a pioneer: His first album, Signmark, released in 2006, was the first Sign Language hip-hop album in the world. The story of Signmark is especially about making one’s dreams come true. Marko graduated from the teacher training programme in Sign Language at the University of Jyväskylä in 2004.
It was close, however, that Marko would have become an athlete or PE teacher instead of a musician. He had been actively engaged in athletics since the age of 8 and also played ice hockey and floorball on a high level. Loving sports, he completed physical education instructor studies and concentrated especially on instructing small children. “After that, I tried to apply to the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, but I was not eligible as I did not have a general upper secondary school certificate,” says Marko about his study path.
Marko had worked at children’s summer camps and noticed how nice it was to share his own experiences with children as well as to serve as a role model. “Not all children grew up in the same environment as I did,” Marko says. “I was born into a family of Sign Language users, where my parents and brothers are deaf Sign Language users.” The family attended various events in Finland and abroad, where all the participants are deaf users of Sign Language.
“My linguistic and cultural identity was injected in me right from birth.”
Marko knew that through the work of a teacher he could share the richness of language and culture with children who did not necessarily have similar opportunities for such experiences at home.
“I noticed that the JYU Department of Teacher Education was establishing a new programme for Teacher Training in Sign Language, and I realised that if I were admitted, I could perhaps later get into sport sciences by internal transfer. But as it turned out, I stayed on the teacher training path to the end, since there I could expand my competence to a larger extent. Besides, I already had the PE instructor qualification anyway.”
From his study years, Marko fondly recalls a variety of student events. There were also many late-night sessions such as reading circles, which were not, unfortunately, always the nicest activities. “I remember being upset that I had to sit there late when I could have been playing ice hockey instead, but now in retrospect I can say that it was valuable,” Marko says.
At university, Marko found a suitable way of learning for himself, including sharing of knowledge, debates and exchange of experiences. “I can also recall some lectures where I got a chance to argue with the professors. One professor in front of over a hundred students had classified the deaf into a wrong category in my opinion, and so I protested by marching out from the auditorium in the middle of the lecture, Marko laughs.
“Gosh, how I miss those days at the university! Although finishing my master’s thesis was awful as well as the statistics exams, but I would still do it all over again!”
Marko Vuoriheimo had started to translate various songs into Sign Language already as a lower secondary school student, but he says that it was not until university when he understood that hands form a language. Marko got his first live gig in his study years. There was a “Culture Goes to a Pub” event in Jyväskylä, in which deaf students were also invited to participate. Marko taught his deaf friends to present the chorus in Sign Language, and so they went and “rapped” in the bar.
After graduation, Marko worked for a few years as a teacher, but then the man got caught up with music. However, university education has been useful in many ways along his career. “I pursued a lot of different studies in linguistics related to Sign Language, and culture was also thoroughly addressed,” Marko says. “The studies have helped me in writing and translating rhymes into Sign Language so that they really rhyme in Sign Language too.”
Nowadays, Marko gives lectures and arranges many workshops, so pedagogic competence helps a lot in planning, taking the target groups into account and also with respect to the way of presentation. Obviously, his long experience is also of great help.
“I also have about 25 employees in my firm; they are Sign Language interpreters. In the Department of Teacher Education, my major was Sign Language linguistics, and it is still very useful.”
In 2010, Vuoriheimo was appointed Special Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Along with this appointment, he has travelled around the world performing and speaking about the rights of minorities and people with disabilities. He has given speeches at, among other places, the UN Headquarters as well as in Finnish Embassies on different continents.
“I work a lot for human rights as well as accessibility and equality issues. University studies have helped me see the world more broadly and deeply.”
Marko encourages new university students to take full advantage of their study years, since the skills and knowledge you learn can be utilised for the rest of your life. “The four or six years ahead may seem like a long time, but after all it is a surprisingly short period in human life,” Marko points out. “Yet it is a highly significant one.
“The most important thing is to enjoy life during your study years. Personally, I often went to different parties, studied, and played sports every day. I had no children then, so everything was so easy. I didn’t realise it then; only now when I have three firms and three children at home.”
Marko Vuoriheimo will give a speech at the University Days on 27 October. His topic is Attitude and will: Making a dream come true.
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