Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action

October 8, 2014

Could upgrading standards and curricula help Interpreter Education Programs produce graduates with higher levels of competence? Reflecting on the current state of interpreter education, Cindy Volk sounds a national call to action to reconsider how we educate and prepare sign language interpreters.

I’m worried. I’m worried that my mom will not have a qualified sign language interpreter when she sees the doctor for her serious medical problems. I’m worried that my mom will be misunderstood when she makes a VRS call to contact doctors and other medical personnel regarding these medical problems. I’m worried that when my mom is in the hospital, the interpreter is either not qualified or one is not provided. I’m worried.

[Click to view post in ASL]

As the director of a bachelor’s degree interpreter education program, I realize that no matter how hard I and the other faculty work to make this an excellent program, there are still some students graduating that I would not want as an interpreter for my mother. I worry about their ASL to English skills, and in particular whether or not they can read fingerspelling and numbers. When I receive a VRS call from my mom and the interpreter says “Hi, is Cathy there?”.  I worry.  Certainly these areas of concern are prioritized in our program. We are continually updating the program, attending conferences, conducting and reading research, and consulting with Deaf faculty and the Deaf community. However, even a four year program is sometimes not enough to produce a qualified interpreter.

A National Call to Action

I believe that we need a national call to action to address how we are educating sign language interpreters in the United States.

There is too much inconsistency across interpreter education programs. Those of us in the business of educating sign language interpreters need to address these inconsistencies:

  1. Most of our interpreting programs are at the two year level. This simply isn’t enough time to prepare a qualified sign language interpreter. There are many excellent two-year programs.  However, two years just simply isn’t enough time. Some two year programs are encouraging their students to complete some type of bachelor’s completion degree in order to be able to sit for the national examination. This perpetuates the idea that less education in the area of interpreting is acceptable. It isn’t. Our profession has moved beyond the two year training level.  It’s time to face that reality.
  2. Students are not always fluent in ASL and English before they enter an interpreting program. We need to demand this level of skill and screen for fluency in ASL.  We need to agree upon what level of fluency is required. For a two year sign language interpreting program, this means the student has at least two years of coursework prior to entering the program, but then after four years, does not achieve the bachelor degree required for the national examination. This isn’t fair to students.
  3. We need more Deaf individuals involved in interpreter training as faculty and mentors.
  4. We need to figure out a way of screening a student’s aptitude for becoming an interpreter.
  5. CCIE (Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education) needs to consider distinguishing between AA, BA, MA, and PhD programs in their accreditation process. Currently there is no distinction.
  6. We need to figure out a way to model and teach deaf-heart.  It is lacking from many of our students today.  We also need to dialogue about how to educate students regarding the level of professional behavior that is expected of interpreters once they are working.
  7. The “school-to-work gap” is wide and difficult for students to navigate in our current system. Many students graduate from programs but are not yet ready for certification or for employment.  We often bemoan this gap, but as educators we need to seriously consider what can be done in our programs to shorten or eliminate it.

Who’s Guarding the Gate?

In the infancy of the interpreting profession, the Deaf community played an important role in “gatekeeping” – selecting candidates for the interpreting profession for various reasons and turning others away based on community standards and values.  Over time, much of that responsibility has been turned over to interpreter education programs.  As Damita Boyd states in her February 2014 StreetLeverage article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs, interpreter education programs are currently seen as the gatekeepers to the interpreting profession. If this is true, we need to do a better job of guarding who is coming in and out of the gate.

Here are some ideas about how we can better guard that gate.

  1.  Develop a national curriculum for educating interpreters. We need to come to consensus regarding the length of interpreter education programs, entry requirements, outcomes and the curriculum in these programs.  In Chapter 7 of Legacies and Legends: History of Interpreter Education from 1800 to the 21st Century (Ball, 2013), Dr. Ball describes what is needed for the future of interpreter education. CIT (Conferenceof Interpreter Trainers) should assume a leading role in shaping this future.
  2. Establish groups of educators, practitioners and stakeholders who are interested in raising the bar in sign language interpreter education. Witter-Merithew and Johnson (2004) recommended that we establish Communities of Inquiry who will work together to advance the professionalization of the field of interpreting which would lead to a national plan of action. It’s been ten years since their recommendation. It’s time to act on it.
  3. Consider the idea of particular programs specializing in certain areas, i.e. educational interpreting, VRS (Video Relay Service) interpreting, medical interpreting. Students who want to work in those areas would have to attend that program. This could be at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
  4. Determine ways for interpreting students to be involved in the Deaf community in meaningful ways. Our program at the University of Arizona requires all interpreting students to have a deaf mentor. Students must develop a reciprocal arrangement with the mentor and “pay back” in some way, i.e. money, babysitting, cooking, errands. They meet with their mentor weekly and reciprocate weekly. This is a good start, but we still need to do more.
  5. Develop outcomes that are necessary for any sign language interpreter graduate (Ball, 2013). Patrie and Taylor (2008) developed outcomes for graduates of bachelor level programs in the area of educational interpreting.  Similar outcomes need to be developed for other areas in interpreting.

In the End

As many interpreter educators near retirement, I hope we can pursue meaningful improvements in how we educate sign language interpreters. This could be our gift to the next generation of interpreter educators, students, and especially to the Deaf community.  A small group of us will be meeting in the next few months to further develop some of these ideas. Will you consider establishing similar groups in your own communities?  Will you consider being a guardian of the gate?  If so, maybe I’ll be a little less worried.

Interpreter Education Month

References:

Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of Interpreter Education from 1800 to the 21st Century. Interpreting Consolidated. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Boyd, D. (2014).   Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs. See more at: http://www.streetleverage.com/2014/02/cooperation-strengthens-sign-language-interpreter-education-programs/#sthash.RGfV9qKM.dpuf

Patrie, C.J. and Taylor, M.M. (2008). Outcomes for graduates of baccalaureate interpreter preparation programs specializing in interpreting in K – 12th grade settings.  AlbanyNY: The State of New   York, State Education Department. Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID).

Witter, Merithew, A., and Johnson, L. (2004). Market disorder within the field of sign language interpreting: Professionalization implications.  Journal of Interpretation, 19-55.


 

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54 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action"

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Member
Jon Shellhammer
I just want to say thank you so much for this article. As a fellow CODA, I appreciate you sharing your concerns about who is interpreting for your mother. I am currently in my last semester at NTID, finishing up my BA in interpreting. I oftentimes frame my critical feedback with the thought of “what if this person was interpreting for my parents.” I often wonder if that has made me too critical or if it is just raising the bar? The topic you have presented on is also near and dear to my heart. I’ve worked with my program… Read more »
Member

Interesting question about the referral agencies and state commissions. I do believe that they are also gatekeepers for our profession. Here in Arizona, sign language interpreters must be licensed by our state commission which means that the commission is definitely a gatekeeper. The issue with referral agencies is fodder for another article! With so many spoken language referral agencies getting involved with hiring sign language interpreters now, I have huge concerns about their ability to screen which sign language interpreters are appropriate for which interpreting assignments. Thanks for your comments Jon!

Member
Sarah Schiffeler
Hi Cindy, Excellent article. Thank you. Jon brings up very salient points. In your response, I would like to highlight that a lack of discretion does not exist only in spoken language referral agencies. Please do not exonerate those who should know better. There are a plethora of referral agencies across the country who profess to be competent in their knowledge of sign language as well as deaf community and culture who are as egregious, if not worse, in their business practices, as the uninformed spoken language agencies are. In our current agency controlled environments, economics trumps ethical response. This… Read more »
Member
Sarah- I agree with you that the lack of discretion is also seen in sign language interpreter referral agencies as well. However, I know that there are sign language interpreter referral agencies that do want to set the bar higher. I see evidence of that here in Tucson at the Community Outreach Program for the Deaf (COPD). The interpreting director is Deaf and knows the Deaf community here very well. She definitely places ethics before economics in doing what is right for Deaf people and the community. However, I also see interpreters that COPD won’t use working for agencies from… Read more »
Member
Sarah Schiffeler

Thank you Cindy, for the rays of hope that ethical practice can successfully trump economic practice. I do hope for the day when the “higher road” business model becomes the rule for agencies and interpreters, as opposed to the exception that it currently is. It will take time, because to your point, interpreters are also led by the economic noose. I do appreciate knowing that there are places in the country that are demanding more. So glad to see real gatekeepers surfacing again.

Member
Cindy, Thank you for shining a light on our weaknesses in interpreter education. I work for a state agency and part of my job is training and mentoring interpreters who are working through that school to work gap. The biggest frustration I have is that so many are trying to work on and develop interpreting skills but they are not yet fluent in ASL. It is putting the cart before the horse. When that happens, I always refer them to Deaf language mentor and tell them they need language fluency before focusing on interpreting skills. So many balk at getting… Read more »
Member

Thanks Dawn for your thoughts on this. I don’t think it is possible to develop interpreting skills without first having both ASL and English fluency. I applaud you for encouraging the interpreters you work with to get a Deaf mentor. Perhaps they are balking because they don’t know any Deaf individuals? Sad, but may very well be true.

Member
I am one of the ITP-ers with which a lot of people who have Deaf family are concerned. And, yes, I believe that ASL to English is a skill that is developed over time if you have strong skills in both languages. I also believe that one of the key elements to interpreters advancing from school to work is the lack of mentors. I live in an area where there should be dozens available and it took me over a year of using every source imaginable to find one. Here’s my suggestions: 1. Mentorship needs to be recognized by RID… Read more »
Member

Kevin, I am sorry that you are disillusioned with RID and the interpreting community. I hope that you don’t give up on us. Change is definitely needed. I don’t mean to sound cliche, but I guess my suggestion would be to get involved and be a part of the change that needs to happen. I like your suggestions about mentors. We do need more mentors and more recognition for them. Thanks for your remarks.

Member
Cindy, I agree with you that 2 years, even 4 years I believe, does not guarantee that every student going out the door of interpreter training programs will be ready to interpret. Going to law school does not guarantee that a lawyer will pass the bar. The difference is that if you don’t pass the bar, you don’t practice law—at least not alone or without supervision. A least for some, and I would say most, students there will be a gap between graduation and readiness to work independently as an interpreter in the range of situations that a community interpreter… Read more »
Member
Judy- I really loved reading your response! You have many great ideas and I would like to steal some of your ideas for our program as well! There are many similarities between our programs, but we have yet to institute something for our students after they graduate. I especially love the idea of an apprenticeship working with Deaf interpreters. What a rich environment this would be for our graduates. I am definitely on your bandwagon! I also really like the idea about requiring students to have a memorandum of understanding with a Deaf mentor PRIOR to being accepted to a… Read more »
Member
Jenna Curtis
Cindy, thank you for bringing this topic to light! I have been thinking about this issue since our discussions at the OSEP conference last year. I am so glad to see you continuing on this path, which is so critical to our profession. Judy, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comment. I love the idea of mandatory apprenticeship. So many professions have legally mandated apprenticeship, as a skill-based practice profession why shouldn’t interpreting? At Western Oregon University, we require three years of ASL courses as well as other pre-interpreting courses prior to entering the ASL/English Interpreting Program. We also have implemented… Read more »
Member

Jenna- thanks for the information about your post-graduate mentorship program. It sounds fabulous! I would love to chat more at CIT about how we can implement that idea into our programs. I am definitely seeing a common thread among responses that mentoring and apprenticeship is a way to address the gap.

Member
Terri Hayes
Cindy, Thank you for your article. Its a very important topic. I do not think we need “better” or longer training for interpreters… I think rather that we need different training for interpreters. Training with clear measures of the product. And we need to fail the people who are not meeting those measures. College classes are not SKILL based educational opportunities. They are, by design, Knowledge based opportunities. AA, BA, Master PHD… all of these are Intellectual forums… not shops that focus on functional skills. You do not get any of those degrees above in Cabinet making, or construction or… Read more »
Member
Thanks for your passionate thoughts on this topic Terri. I agree with some of the things you mention and respectfully disagree with some of the other comments. I certainly agree that we need training with clear measures. However, I disagree that all university/college training is knowledge-based and not skill-based. Most interpreting programs have a number of courses that I consider to be more skill-based such as practicum, internship and courses focusing on message equivalence. I agree with you that many interpreters are most comfortable using more English based signing systems. However, I don’t think the reason for this is a… Read more »
Member
Paula Meyer
I am so thankful for the ITP I graduated from which held high expectations. Regarding the comment in the article “We need to figure out a way of screening a student’s aptitude for becoming an interpreter”, our program has an Assessment Test set to do just this. There are three levels of ASL courses – Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced – three ASL classes at each level. Before we could move on to the Advanced levels, we had to take and pass the Assessment Test. You had two opportunities and if after both times (with much practice and preparation by the… Read more »
Member
I too am glad that you had such a wonderful ITP experience Paula! I think perhaps I wasn’t clear in the article about what I meant by “aptitude”. I am referring to qualities like personality, ability to handle conflict, managing stressful situations, etc. The types of qualities that an interpreter needs to have, but are difficult to screen for when examining program applicants. I love your idea about some type of national assessment test as an entry requirement for all IPPs across the country. Do you see it as both knowledge and skills based? Do you think we could all… Read more »
Member
Paula Meyer
Thanks for clarifying what you meant by aptitude. Regarding your question about the skills test before starting an IPP, I would not have passed this type of test before entering my ITP as I only knew the alphabet. The test at my former ITP was taken after students had completed about one year of their ASL (Beginning 1, 2, 3 and Intermediate 1, 2, and 3), Deaf Culture, Fingerspelling, Vocabulary Building, Role of the Interpreter, and basic (math, writing, psychology) courses. This test was skill-based when I took it in 2000. I am not sure if they have since added… Read more »
dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Cindy (and those commenting) Thanks for contributing to discussing this important topic. I think this is really a call to action. I also just read “More than Meets the Eyes” – Melissa Smith’s book about what happens with qualified interpreters in educational settings. It all speaks to the gaps that exist. Judy – I liked what you wrote about “embracing the gap.” Not that we like it, but that we know it will be there and must do something about it. Here in Minnesota, we have a QA law that funds mentoring for interpreters working in schools who are recent… Read more »
Member

Doug- I always love your insight! You are such a gift to our profession! I would love for us to have a dialogue about embracing the gap and also about considering why we have a gap in the first place. Does it really have to exist? Is it possible to shorten or eliminate it?

Member
Susie Stanfield

I live in northeast Kansas. I agree with everything in this article. In our area, the biggest problem is the lack of involvement from the Deaf people. Those of us involved in deaf education and freelance interpreter have asked our deaf people to initiate Deaf club in our area or at least support our efforts to initiate one. They just don’t seem interested. It’s difficult for us to prove our skills when we don’t have access to ASL outside of the professional setting.

Member

Susie- I was born and raised in northeast Kansas! The town of Nortonville- do you know it? Have you talked with your Deaf community about mentoring? Unfortunately, as I am sure you know, the glory days of Deaf clubs have become a thing of the past in many communities. The blessing and the curse of technology!

rkenney
Member
Ray Kenney; CDI
ASL Video Comment can be found at http://youtu.be/xn7BVp8ZbNI Text: Ray Kenney CDI Thank you Cathy… no I mean Cindy Volk for raising the question “Time for a National Call for Action” I can’t speak about the details of how to improve what is happening within the ITP programs; comparing this with that is not in my area of knowledge. However, over the last 25 years I have asked various interpreting educators if a Deaf Person could be accepted into their program? I was told over and over, “NO”. In the more recent past, we are seeing that a few have… Read more »
Member

I completely agree with you about having Deaf students in interpreting programs which will lead to more CDIs which we definitely need. This will enrich and enhance our profession greatly. There are programs that accept Deaf students, but we need more of them to do so. History and traditions are difficult to change, but the time is here to make changes!

Member

Ray- I just watched your Vlog response to the national call to action. Excellent ideas!! Just wanted to let you know that in the title of your response my name is spelled wrong. My last name is Volk, not Vick! Ha!

bcolonomos
Member
Dear Cindy and responders, I am so glad we are discussing this challenging aspect of our field. My entire career has been focused on helping people become the best interpreters they can be. Many valid and interesting points have been made and I won’t be redundant here. There are a few things I would like to say in the spirit of stimulating discussion. First, the comment that “There is no real definition of what ASL is…” is not only a non-question, it is a detractor from the notion that interpreters need to acquire ASL in order to do quality work.… Read more »
Member
Great comments Betty! I love the idea about regional education venues and pooling our best resources into those. Thanks also for the information about Brooke McNamara’s dissertation regarding interpreter aptitude. I hope she will be at CIT to share her findings. I also agree that we must have more than just a knowledge-based approach, although that is also necessary. It’s indisputable that we need mentoring and a Deaf community-based approach as well. Your wisdom, experience and skills are such a gift to our profession. If you are willing, I would love it if we could work together to develop an… Read more »
Member
Lianne Moccia
Thank you, Cindy, for your call to action. Thank you to all who have posted comments. My “formal” interpreter training was at the U of A almost 35 years ago. Four weeks (six weeks?) of daily classes helped us learn a list of English words and their corresponding signs. It wasn’t even called ASL. There were no requirements for participating that I can remember. Many people started with no knowledge at all. We were evaluated based on how fast we could “sign” the audio tape: baseline on the first day compared with our speed on the last day. We have… Read more »
Member
We have come a long way and yet still have a long way to go! As a member of the CIT board, I want to tell you that without a doubt, we welcome those involved in the field of interpreter education who are not part of a formal educational institution. In fact, several of our board members are not part of a post-secondary institution. However, from your comments, I can see that we have not done enough to achieve that goal. I am really glad that you will be at CIT. Would you be willing to meet with myself and… Read more »
bcolonomos
Member

Cindy,

Thank you for your comments about CIT. If you would like more input about this issue, please feel free co contact me as well.

Member

Betty- will you be at the CIT conference later this month? If so, let’s chat there and make a plan.

Member
Lianne Moccia

Cindy: I’d be happy to meet with you, any other interested board members and any colleagues who are interested in a better collaboration between institutional/academic efforts and unaffiliated practitioners and educators like myself.

Member

Great! I will look for you at the conference, but since I don’t know what you look like, it might me easier for you to find me. Please come up and introduce yourself. I think we are having a board forum on Thursday during lunch so that would be a good time to meet with all of the board and address your concerns.

Member
Lianne Moccia

Cindy: I’ll be sure to introduce myself.

bcolonomos
Member

Thank you, Lianne, for sharing our history up close and personal. I am glad you are going to CIT and I hope you will find a place for people like us. Despite me being on the first Organizational Board of CIT in 1979 and president during the 1988 – 1990 term, I have received a clear message that what I do is not valued at CIT anymore. I hope things are changing. I would like to be sharing with my colleagues once again.

Member

Betty- I do hope that things are changing and please know that there are many of us who truly value your contributions. I hope to see you at CIT where we can talk about this further.

Member
Ray, I just enjoyed watching your video. I totally agree with you. As you know, our program at USM is the first designed with the goal of Deaf and hearing students being trained together from its inception. Our goal is 50/50. Since 2002 we have only achieved that in one class! So please, if you are a prospective Deaf interpreting student and cannot find what you need in your local area, come to us. We want you, need you, and welcome you with open arms! Meanwhile, Ray, keep working on opening up your local interpreting program to Deaf students. I… Read more »
Member
Lauren Morcerf
Hello Cindy, I really enjoyed reading your article. I am a student in an interpreting program and could not agree more with all of your points. I often stress about not being adequately prepared for the field when I graduate from my program. From a student’s perspective, I really appreciate your comment on surveying whether or not someone has the personality for interpreting. While I appreciate that skills are a huge part of the profession, I believe that certain personalities are simply not meant to be interpreters, not matter the level of fluency in ASL. This is a problem that… Read more »
Member

Thanks for your comments Lauren! We need more folks like you coming into our profession. Welcome!

Member
Vanessa Cush
As a current ASL student I understand what you are talking about. When it comes to curriculum there is a gap between the ASL level 4 of a neighboring community college and the one I attend. Anyone coming from this other college, to mine, has to re-take ASL 4. If there was a national curriculum this could be avoided. There is no reason that neighboring colleges with the same classes should have a gap in education like that. You mentioned having programs specializing in specific fields. I would love to have the opportunity to experience something like that. Going into… Read more »
Member

Vanessa- thanks for your comments. There are several on-line bachelor’s degree programs in interpreting. You can check into those to further your education without having to relocate.

Member
Vanessa Cush

Oh! I had no idea. Thank you for that.

Member
Callan Reed
Cindy, This was a well written and beautiful article. As an interpreting student, your article really resonated with me. I’ve noticed some things amongst myself and other classmates and I do feel a change is needed. I loved the implementation of a deaf mentor in some colleges. I really wished my school had something like that. My school had me enroll in a deaf culture class and I learned so much precious information. It makes me a bit nervous that colleges that offer an interpreting program may not have the same courses. I take classes at two separate schools, and… Read more »
Member

Callan- the performing arts class is a great idea! If you know Deaf people in your area, I would encourage you to talk with them about mentoring you. It doesn’t have to be through a formal program. The two of you will need to discuss how you will reciprocate for their mentoring services be it financial or something the two of you decide. Best of luck to you!

Member
Cayle O'Brien
As a current ASL student, I can relate. I love the idea of working with a Deaf mentor. My first semester I was enrolled in Deaf Culture, which taught me some very valuable lessons pertaining to the Deaf community. However, having someone with a strong ASL background to converse with when needed, would be ideal to anyone enrolled in an interpreting program. I feel this would enhance our understanding of the Deaf community upon entering the program. Being an active member in the Deaf community, is an important factor in this program as well. How can a person become fluent… Read more »
Member

Thanks for your excellent suggestions Cayle! I love the ideas that this article is generating and I really do believe that changes can be made. Welcome to the profession!

Member
WItchCItyTerp
I agree that one big problem is the school-to-work gap. In fact I believe it may be the biggest issue. New interpreters know they’re not ready for the big time but where does that leave them? If they don’t take jobs their skills atrophy and only get worse. If they do take jobs they end up working in situations they don’t want to be in which also has a negative impact on their careers. They can’t stay in school forever and in all fairness, safe, comfortable, in-school practice isn’t going to get interpreters where they need to be. We’ve all… Read more »
xwoods
Member
Xenia Woods
Cindy, your concerns are indeed valid ones, and on the whole, I agree with your call to action. Yet I must take exception to some aspects of it. I taught at a community college interpreting program for four years. Some people assumed our program was substandard merely because it was a two-year program. However, we had all of the following: – A majority Deaf faculty – A requirement of two years of ASL instruction prior to entering the program, plus other prerequisites including English and Deaf History – A stringent screening process – A stringent exit exam – An option… Read more »
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[…] of the recurring issues we see. If you read StreetLeverage posts, Cindy Volk posted an article, Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action, in October during Interpreter Education month. Her article addresses some of these recurring […]

Member

Why are professors passing these students along? I graduated from a 4 year program with a large cohort of classmates, many of whom I would NEVER want as an interpreter. A passing grade of D is unacceptable to me, yet somehow my classmates with these grades were getting pushed along the program. Why are professors not taking these students aside and telling them they need more work, more development, that they just aren’t cutting it? You better believe it’s happening in other programs, so why not ours?

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[…] needs to be channeled into a newfound energy for finding solutions. Recently, in her article, Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action, Cindy Volk reached out with a “National Call to Action” and outlined ways for interpreter […]

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[…] It is time to radically examine how we prepare sign language interpreters nationwide. For far too long we have recognized that the preparation of an interpreter is nearly impossible to do in a two-year time period – whether those two years are part of a two-year associate degree program or the last two years of a baccalaureate degree program. We believe it is now time for community action. Collectively, we need to rethink how we prepare sign language interpreters and recognize that it takes a village to fully prepare interpreters. We are answering the call to action asked for… Read more »
Member
Colleen Mills
Thank you Cindy for an amazing and eye opening article. As a current student studying in a two year program this is a subject that needs to be talked about more. I have obtained my bachelors degree 4 years ago and decided that I hated my career choice , So I decided to go back to school for Interpreting because I love ASL. Since I already have my bachelors I just need to take selected coarses in ASL and interpreting. I find this to be a struggle because I really don’t have a mentor guiding me in which coarses are… Read more »

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