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Bachelor of Arts in Interpretation program provides unprecedented opportunities

Image: Bachelor of Arts in Interpretation student Eric Odell is shown on the job during his internship at the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Rockville, Md.

Bachelor of Arts in Interpretation student Eric Odell is shown on the job during his internship at the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Rockville, Md.

Gallaudet University is the only place in the world where people who are interested in entering the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting profession can receive a first-rate education and practical experience on the undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. levels.

The University has earned a solid reputation among career-bound interpreters through its longstanding Master of Arts in Interpretation program, which was formed in 1988. The program expanded to offer a Bachelor of Arts in Interpretation (BAI) program in 2005 and a four-year Ph.D. program in 2010. Having both master's and Ph.D. programs offers undergraduates the added benefit of upper-level students who serve as mentors or instructors while the Ph.D. students, who mainly become interpreter educators after earning their degree, gain an opportunity to refine their teaching skills.

Many BAI students transfer to Gallaudet from other colleges and universities and stay two to three years to complete the program, said Dr. Melanie Metzger, chair of the Department of Interpretation. Many new interpreting students are so excited about coming to Gallaudet that they have visions of working straight through to the Ph.D. level.

"One of the greatest advantages of studying interpretation at Gallaudet University," said Metzger, "is that students are immersed in the language and culture of the deaf community. When one wishes to become a Russian-English interpreter, for example, it is best to spend time living in Russia. Gallaudet offers students an opportunity to experience a world in which non-deaf people are the minority. Despite the personal challenges this brings, or really because of them, students cite the experience of living in dorms and participating in deaf life and activities on campus as one of the most rewarding experiences of the undergraduate studies." Although some students in the BAI program come to the realization that the interpreting profession is not for them, the overwhelming majority of students complete the program, and a growing number are continuing to the master's level, following an accelerated M.A. program offered exclusively to Gallaudet BAI students.

In their junior year, the BAI students observe professional interpreters, who are also their mentors, by "shadowing" them on the job. They continue this practice of observation in the fall of their senior year. Service learning is an integrated part of the BAI and MAI programs, where students serve as unpaid, pro bono interpreters. These services are always carefully screened for appropriateness by department staff and are generally informal, small group situations, usually requested by members of the deaf community, such as interpreting for a meeting, social event, or a child's sports game. In the spring semester of their senior year, students in the program are required to complete a 150-hour internship, which gives them experience working in a professional setting. Service learning pro bono interpreting work and internship experiences require students to report back to their class throughout the semester to discuss and reflect on their experiences.

Because of the large number of federal agencies and non-profit organizations in the Washington, D.C. area, there is no lack of internships for students in the program. Many of the sites where the interns are placed employ Gallaudet alumni, said Paul Harrelson, a BAI adjunct faculty, advisor, and field placement supervisor, with 20 years of experience as a certified interpreter. This benefits the interns greatly, he said, because it allows them to work alongside a deaf professional, giving them an unparalleled level of sensitivity to what a deaf person's life is like in the workplace. This year, for the first time, BAI seniors had the opportunity to work with an interpreting agency that designed to meet the specific requirements of the BAI program. "This is evidence that our students are in demand," he added. "It is just like other professional preparation fields where companies want to form a relationship with students early so they are ready to work full time after graduation."

"Getting accepted into the BAI program was an honor that I took very seriously," said Rosemary Johnson, of Richardson, Tex., who earned her BAI degree last year. "Throughout the program, I was able to learn about the many different interpreting specialties, as well as the ways interpreters can individualize their profession to match their strengths," she said.

Having a background in acting, it was an easy choice for Johnson to serve her internship in Gallaudet's Theatre Arts Department. "I was thrilled to find a way to bring together my passion for interpreting and theater," she said. Johnson is presently a certified freelance interpreter in the D.C. area, working primarily in business, government, and theater settings. "With the guidance of the BAI program, I have the tools to build a profession that I truly enjoy," she said. Johnson also spends time on campus coaching the Gallaudet Bison cheerleading squad. "As an undergraduate, the BAI program strongly encouraged us to get involved on campus," she explained. Before enrolling at Gallaudet, Johnson was a high school and competitive cheerleader, so she became a Bison cheerleader, and after graduating decided to continue her involvement. This fall, Johnson also plans to begin working on her master's degree in deaf studies at Gallaudet.

BAI students who wish to return to their communities for internships--a practice that is strongly encouraged by the Department of Interpretation--are now being accommodated. The interns who serve out of the D.C. area communicate with their professors and other students through FUZE video conferencing technology.

"We are so pleased to offer these interpreting programs [in widespread geographic locations], because our intention is to serve deaf people around the U.S., not just in D.C.," said Metzger. In this way, the program hopes to have interpreters "grow roots in their hometown," she added.

This year, for example, Jeremy Rogers, from California, interned at a community college as an interpreter for the chair of the ASL Department, and he interpreted in various settings in the local community. Nicole Miller, who wanted interpreting experience in a grades K-12 educational setting, was able to get an internship in her hometown of Akron, Ohio in the city's public school system. "Experiencing a remote internship in Akron was challenging but definitely worth it. I was able to network and learn about the deaf community in this area, while still attending class and having a support system to fall back on at Gallaudet," said Miller. "By completing my internship in the area I plan to stay, I was able to gain strong networking, meet several interpreters, and get involved in the deaf community." said Miller. "Transferring to Gallaudet was the best decision I have ever made in my life," she added. "Full immersion into deaf culture has provided me with many friends as well as a great background for interpreting. Gallaudet University has prepared me for the real world."

Just as the nation is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, so are interpreters' clientele. To better meet the needs of today's clients, "We want to attract a more diverse student body that more accurately reflects the community we serve," said Metzger. Early signs of this effort are heartening. According to Dr. Valerie Dively, a professor and coordinator for the BAI program, in a field that has been predominately female and white, this year's graduating class of 13 consists of seven males-one of whom is Hispanic-and of the females, one is Hispanic and one is African American.

Nadia D'Amato, a junior from Washington, D.C., applauds the program's initiative to increase diversity among interpreters. As the BAI's first hearing blind student, she feels that people with disabilities have much to add to the interpreting profession. "While they are not the same, there are parallels that can be drawn between deaf culture and various disability cultures," said D'Amato. "We have experiences that give us all different perspectives on interpreting and what makes a good interpreter."

Faculty and staff in the program "have been extremely supportive," said D'Amato. "They've tailored the courses to my needs so that I could really get the same benefit as other students, rather than just making me go through the same motions." She also credits Gallaudet's certified deaf interpreters (CDIs) and numerous deaf friends she has made on campus for her positive learning experience. "So many of the CDIs on this campus are so talented and are really making all of this possible for me," said D'Amato. "My deaf friends have also been incredibly helpful in telling me all the things that maybe I don't know but that I need to know, and giving me extremely useful feedback on my skills."

When it came to deciding on where to gain the skills and experience to become an ASL interpreter, D'Amato said Gallaudet was the clear choice. "One of the great benefits about Gallaudet is that I get exposure to the deaf community that students in interpreting programs at hearing schools don't get, which I think is invaluable," she said. "In order to become a successful interpreter, that close relationship with the deaf community is crucial, and Gallaudet makes it so much easier to do that."
Due to its growing demand on all three levels, the University is expanding the interpreting program. Two faculty positions are being added and the department will move in the fall from the Kellogg Conference Hotel to Hall Memorial Building to acquire the space needed to accommodate 10 faculty and approximately 150 students.

There are a number of reasons for the interpreting program's success: It boasts faculty members who are unprecedented experts in the field of interpreting who are widely published scholars and practitioners; it pays diligent attention to students' transition from school to work to ensure their readiness for the demands of professional interpreting; and because the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf now requires a B.A. degree for certification, students invariably choose Gallaudet for its reputation and their desire to learn about the deaf community. There is another compelling reason that attracts students to the program. "Interpreting is still a high demand occupation," said Harrelson, "and our students are very well prepared for the working world."

Data from the Department of Interpretation reveal that around 95 percent of graduates from the BAI program acquire jobs soon after graduation, or continue their education to the next level. Many graduates begin their interpreting career in positions that often require several years of work experience. Nicole Miller, for example, was offered a job, even before her internship ended, a position that generally goes to interpreters with at least five years of experience.

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