Sterkens grew up in the Netherlands and was educated as a speech-language pathologist and hearing specialist. Through the help of Jack Kile, former communicative disorders professor, she was accepted to the graduate program for speech and hearing at the Oshkosh.
Today, Sterkens is improving access to hearing across the United States by educating consumers, audiologists and venue operators about the benefits of hearing loops. She will be honored for her efforts with a 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award from the UW Oshkosh Alumni Association during Homecoming 2015 weekend in October.
As a student at UWO , Sterkens dedicated most of her time to learning English, the culture and studying. When she could, she worked as a graduate assistant for Kile.
In 1988, she opened the Fox Valley Hearing Center with fellow UWO graduate audiologist Doreen Jensen, who earned a master’s in 1982. Together, Sterkens and Jensen provided personalized audiology and hearing aid services to the Fox Valley community. Over the years, Sterkens helped thousands of area residents as well as their babies and children hear better.
“That is also where I was professionally the most frustrated because even with the best technology hearing aids, they cannot ever restore hearing back to normal,” Sterkens said. “And to hear in public places, users need to use additional technology.”
With that in mind, Sterkens researched other hearing assistive technology and learned about hearing loops. Hearing loops allow people to hear wirelessly at the touch of a button, and they don’t require any special equipment other than a telecoil equipped hearing aid or cochlear implant.
Sterkens was inspired to bring that technology to Oshkosh and the Fox Valley area, including the Alumni Welcome Conference Center on campus. She now advocates for hearing loops throughout the state and nationally so millions of people can hear with more clarity.
Sterkens explained how people who don’t experience hearing loss can easily “fill in blanks” or listen with more intent to figure out what others are saying. She said those with hearing loss have a harder time picking up sound over distance or blocking out background noise with just hearing aids, and the hearing loops conquer that problem.
In 2012, Sterkens resigned from Fox Valley Hearing Center to become the national hearing loop advocate with the non-profit Hearing Loss Association of America. She travels across the country lecturing about living with hearing loss, how to purchase hearing aids and how hearing loops can help.
“I do this because I want to make a difference in the world for people with hearing loss,” Sterkens said. “I want to improve hearing access in Wisconsin and beyond. I want this to be my legacy.”
In order to get people involved with the loop hearing movement, Sterkens writes for her blog and articles for professionals, posts educational videos for audiologists and maintains a website. In 2014, she gave more than 80 presentations across the nation and in the United Kingdom and Germany.
In 2013, she was presented with the American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award, the Academy of Doctors of Audiology- Leo Doerfler Award and the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Arizona School of Health Sciences.
During her free time, Sterkens enjoys baking bread, gardening, hiking and traveling to see her family in the Netherlands.
“My family would say I’m rather obsessed about spreading the word about looping,” she admits. “But how can I not be when I know it helps people hear so much better with simple, low-cost, universal technology that is found in more than 60 percent of today’s hearing aids?”
Thanks to Sterkens’ efforts, the number of hearing loops in Wisconsin has increased from a dozen in 2008 to 400 today. Sterkens expects the numbers to continue to increase across the state.
Through her education at UWO, Sterkens valued learning about how each person’s needs are unique. When Kile taught how he used to laugh and cry along with his patients, Sterkens instilled that into her own practice.
“I loved taking care of my patients and helping them hear to the best of their ability,” Sterkens said.
One of her patients said her life has been changed forever because of Sterkens’ effort to install hearing loops at her church.
“It was the first time I actually understood every word that was spoken,” her patient said. “It made such an impact in my life that I had a hearing loop installed in my home, and have worked closely with Sterkens and her husband in spreading the word regarding hearing loops.”
Sterkens’ favorite memory from the University is about her UWO hero, Kile. She remembers that she brought a tape recorder to class in order to transcribe the lecture at home. When Kile saw the tape recorder, he began to sing out loud in class. As a former barber shop singer, Kile rewound the recording and then sang the harmony.
After that, Sterkens never brought a tape recorder to his class again. However, she did maintain a straight-A average and finished the national ETS Praxis exam in the 99th percentile.
Kile names Sterkens as one of the brightest students he’s had in his 35 years of teaching.
“As a student, she was focused, possessed a passion for learning, responded well to an academic challenge and went beyond the expected,” Kile said. “She was destined for professional success.”
Sterkens attended UWO because the audiology program had an excellent reputation and she appreciated the help she received during the initial application process. Everyone made her feel at home right from the start; a faculty member addressed Sterkens in Dutch when she first arrived on campus. As an avid windsurfer, she fell in love not only with campus but also the Oshkosh area and surrounding lakes.
“What I also found is that UWO attracts students from around the world, including students from my home country,” Sterkens said. “I am still friends with several of them, even though they have long since moved back to the Netherlands.”
Sterkens urges students to put 100 percent effort into school.
“You get out what you put into it,” Sterkens said. “Search out activities in the real world because it’s very different than being in school. Don’t be afraid to try new things.”
For more information about the alumni awards celebration on Oct. 16 during Homecoming 2015, please contact the UW Oshkosh Alumni Relations Office at (920) 424-3449 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.