December 04, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

Photo of Nikita Sietsema, a 2021 Calvin University graduate.
Nikita Sietsema is a 2021 graduate of Calvin University.

“I’m super passionate about American Sign Language (ASL), I’ve always been drawn to it. I found it to be a beautiful language and wanted to learn it.”

Since Nikita Sietsema was young, she was fascinated by the beauty of ASL.

When she found out her high school offered ASL, she jumped at the opportunity to learn.

Making meaningful connections

During Sietsema’s sophomore year at Northview High School (Grand Rapids, Mich.) she discovered a deeper connection to this passion.

“My mom told me that my dad, who had passed away when I was five years old, always loved ASL and tried to teach himself,” said Sietsema. “I hadn’t known that before.”

And Sietsema’s appreciation for ASL kept deepening.

“I’ve always been a quiet person, especially in middle and high school, and ASL was a way for me to break out of that,” said Sietsema. “I could communicate without needing to talk when that became something that caused anxiety, and then use those skills to communicate verbally as well.”

While Sietsema’s interest in ASL was initially sparked by its beauty, it quickly grew to be more important to her.

In 2017, she stepped onto Calvin’s campus, declared a computer science major, and started to dream. “Since my first year at Calvin, I knew I wanted my senior project to be something meaningful to me, and to combine it with a hobby,” said Sietsema.

Reflecting on her high school experience of learning ASL, she realized, “I can look up words, but there’s no way for me to study [ASL] effectively on my own. I can’t use Quizlet to study flash cards because I need a video of someone signing, and the only available tool costs $30+ a semester for a very limited studying platform.”

Creating a pathway

Instead of settling for what was available or seeing it as a dead end, Sietsema started to imagine a new pathway.

“I thought I should make a study tool because I would’ve liked that as a student myself,” said Sietsema. So, she talked with other ASL students, and they loved her idea of providing ASL students a way to study on their own.

Sietsema and her fellow computer science students at Calvin, Daniel Kuiper and Jason Pruim, made solving this problem their senior project.

A sketched drawing of three 2021 Calvin University graduates
From left to right: Daniel Kuiper, Nikita Sietsema, and Jason Pruim

“[When] learning ASL in a virtual classroom or in high school, students might not always have time to get together to study before a test, or they may want to practice some extra vocabulary on their own,” said Sietsema. “One way is to sign to yourself, but then you don’t have the practice of seeing someone else sign and identifying those words, and that’s where this helps.”

Introducing a solution

Sietsema and her team created a website called TRAIN GO SORRY. They named the site after a popular ASL idiom that “signifies the fun of learning since the idiom marks a milestone in ASL fluency.”

This website is meant to supplement, not replace, ASL teaching. Sietsema says the goal is to help someone nail down vocabulary, which she says is “crucial to being able to communicate.”

Taking an empathetic approach

She says her time at Calvin not only provided her the opportunity to create the site, but also influenced her approach to doing so.

“One of the things emphasized in a lot of our courses is to be empathetic and consider the implications of how technology can impact people,” said Sietsema. “With this app, we wanted to ensure that we are respecting Deaf culture by getting the signs in our dictionary reviewed by ASL teachers and interpreters to make sure things are accurate. Also, when adding definitions for every word, I’m making sure that those definitions respect the people and culture that this language belongs to.”

In 2021, just prior to graduation from Calvin, Sietsema and her team launched the fully functional web version of TRAIN GO SORRY. Now, two years later, Sietsema is working as a Software Development Consultant at Vervint, but she continues to carve out time to further develop the site.

She says her main focus now is creating a mobile-friendly version of the site.

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