Building Walls, Demolishing Obstacles
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel, except as credited.
The 18,500 square feet of space produces the cacophonous sound of work. Wet chop saws are cutting blocks into desired shapes. Students and faculty are conferring over the latest projects. And mortar is being mixed to serve as a vital binding agent for the seemingly endless supply of bricks waiting to be positioned.
Nicole Reyes-Molina adds to the echoes in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Construction Masonry Building. She cuts block, huddles with her instructor and classmates, flips mortar with her trusty trowel and intently aligns brick after brick. In many ways, the lone female in the lab sets the tone for the entire class.
Which is ironic considering that Reyes-Molina is deaf.
“You can do whatever you set your mind to. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not,” says Reyes-Molina through a sign language interpreter. “You do things in a different way. You learn to cope. You learn to take on challenges in different ways and to have a positive attitude while doing that.”
“You learn to cope. You learn to take on challenges in different ways and to have a positive attitude while doing that.”
Her positive attitude and infectious smile have rubbed off on the other 33 masonry majors seeking an associate degree. Glenn R. Luse, instructor of masonry, chuckles when describing the inevitable sight at the beginning of a project requiring students to pick partners: a long line of hopeful classmates approaching Reyes-Molina.
“They all want to be her partner,” Luse says. “She’s a role model for a lot of the guys because of her abilities. Nicole is very secure with who she is and what she’s doing, and that makes all the difference in the world. She’s determined to learn. She is determined to get all she can out of school.”
“Nicole is driven, determined and goal-focused,” says Moore, who has interpreted for Reyes-Molina in several classes. “She does not seem to be intimidated by being the only woman. Instead, she jumps in with creating ideas, offering suggestions and helping others. She does not let her deafness inhibit her dreams.”
Those dreams include becoming a mason and eventually owning her own masonry company. Today Reyes-Molina is building, literally, on the skills that will help her realize such aspirations. With a grateful partner, she is in the midst of constructing a large wall, the main project for her brick masonry class.
The lefthander confidently plunges her purple-handled trowel into a nearby wheelbarrow filled with mortar. A bold swiping motion deposits the perfect amount of mortar on her red brick. Reyes-Molina examines the intended location of the brick before tapping it into place on top of a gray block. Only a couple hundred more bricks to go.
“It’s definitely my favorite part of the day,” Reyes-Molina says. “My mind is free. I love getting my hands dirty. I like working with nature. I enjoy products of the earth.”
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Reyes-Molina preferred toy trucks to dolls. When she was 8, her family moved to Long Island, N.Y., in search of a better quality of life. There, her love grew for nature and “getting dirty.” A few years later, she settled with her parents, two older brothers and twin sister in Lancaster. Her address might have changed, but her attraction to nontraditional vocations did not.
Lancaster County Career & Technology Center exposed Reyes-Molina to masonry during her high school years. She became fascinated with the nature of the work and its unlimited creative possibilities.
“It’s hands-on. It’s physical work. It really requires motivation. It requires creativity,” she says. “You can express yourself. It’s a way for me to express myself through what I can build, permanent structures.”
Determined to be the first in her family to attend college, Reyes-Molina visited Penn College upon the suggestion of one of her technical education teachers. During an Open House tour of the masonry lab, college faculty encouraged her to grab a trowel and lay some brick. She was hooked.
“It was a lot of fun, and I knew then that Penn College was a good connection for me,” she recalls.
The existence of an intercollegiate women’s basketball program solidified the bond. Reyes-Molina played four years of high school basketball and desired to compete at the next level.
“I wanted to accomplish something with a team and have teammates and work toward a goal,” she says. “I wanted to balance my education with fun and academics, and Penn College had both.”
On the court for the Penn College Lady Wildcats, the 5-foot, 6-inch guard can’t hear the official’s whistle or her coach’s instructions. Instead, Reyes-Molina focuses on the team’s point guard to determine when play is stopped, and she reads that teammate’s lips to identify the play to be run. Once she heads to the bench, an interpreter waits to share any tips or strategies discussed by the coaching staff.
“You would think she’s at a disadvantage with being deaf, but you wouldn’t know it by talking with her,” says Luse, who shaved his mustache so Reyes-Molina could better read his lips in the masonry lab. “She handles herself quite well.”
Perhaps that’s because Reyes-Molina doesn’t know any different. She lost her hearing when she was just eight months old.
An infection caused internal bleeding in both ears. Reyes-Molina’s parents faced a difficult choice to combat the infection: surgery, which could prove fatal, or medication, which could produce severe side effects. They chose the latter. The medication stopped the bleeding but damaged the vestibulocochlear nerve in each ear, which stunted information flow to the brain. The result was bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.
“I can hear a little bit with hearing aids,” says Reyes-Molina, who considers Spanish to be her primary language. “If I don’t have the hearing aids, then I am completely deaf.
“There are a lot more people with a worse life than I have, and they live life being miserable and saying they can’t do things. But I want people to know they can do things. You have to try things that are out of the ordinary and get out of the box.”
Or in her case, build a wall. With the concentration of an artist contemplating the next stroke on a masterpiece, Reyes-Molina continues to work on her semester-ending project. As she manipulates each brick, she must consider its appearance, structural bond and alignment.
“What she knows already, she’s very capable and competent,” Luse says. “Good women masons have the edge in industry. Women are still a minority in the construction workforce. Nicole could pick any job she wanted if she was a union mason.”
After six weeks and approximately 60 hours on this job, Reyes-Molina and her partner have crafted a 16-by-16 foot wall, consisting of 784 bricks, 120 blocks and three arches.
“It’s really been an enjoyment to have this class and to accomplish building this wall,” says Reyes-Molina, who is scheduled to graduate in August. “It feels very good to know that I’m here doing what I’ve dreamed about doing. I know what my future is going to be like. I already know that this is something I really enjoy.”
“She is definitely a role model,” Moore says. “She is a nontraditional student by major, a first-generation college student. She is trilingual. She is deaf. She is a wonderful person to know and work with.” ■