Sunny.jpg Sunshine Prior ’06 is a step closer to her goal of becoming a mental health counselor and advocate for the deaf: She has received a prestigious Fulbright fellowship to study and conduct research abroad. Beginning in March 2011, she will work toward a Master of Science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Prior’s research will take advantage of Wellington’s Deaf Studies Research Unit to explore and compare issues of mental and social health among New Zealand deaf majority women and Maori deaf minority women. “While problems with mental and social health issues are difficult in hearing societies, they are often … even more prevalent and more severe in deaf communities,” she wrote in her Fulbright application.

Anthropology Professor Robert Van Kemper gave Prior key assistance in focusing her research topic, while Director of National Fellowships Kathleen Hugley-Cook was instrumental in helping her present her Fulbright application, Prior says.

Prior intends for her research “to improve the quality of life for deaf communities and deaf women across New Zealand, and ultimately worldwide.”

She discovered her interest in deaf culture while taking classes in American Sign Language as a student at North Dallas High School (NDHS). She came to SMU on a Dedman Scholarship, available to four NDHS students each year through a gift from the late Robert H. Dedman Sr. ’53, a North Dallas and SMU alumnus.

“It is such a fantastic program,” she says. “Without that opportunity, I never would have been able to attend SMU.” She graduated in 2006 with B.A. degrees in psychology and anthropology from Dedman College.

During her undergraduate career, Prior did volunteer work with deaf elementary school students and served as a counseling assistant at the Deaf Action Center of Dallas. But she became aware of the cross-cultural aspects of hearing disorders during her studies in the SMU-in Copenhagen program.

“I saw how different it was to be deaf in Denmark than in the United States,” she says. “The deaf had many more opportunities than in the U.S., as well as fewer obstacles. When I found Wellington’s program in cross-cultural psychology, it looked like a perfect fit for my interests.”

Prior is one of about 1,550 U.S. citizens selected to study abroad this year through the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright U.S. Student Program. More than 40 SMU students have been awarded the fellowship in the last 35 years.