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Where are IOC? In Search of Role Models, Mentorship, & Guidance

Students of Color in interpreter education programs (IEPs) need encouragement. MJ Jones outlines some critical ways we can support future Interpreters of Color through mentorship, support, and information-sharing.


As a hearing transgender Interpreter of Color, I often wonder where to find sign language interpreters and Deaf people who look like me. Sometimes, it feels as if my multiple identities make it a challenge to build connections, seek mentors, and feel my authentic self in the field of sign language interpreting. It was not until my experience attending the Deaf People of Color Conference last year in Austin, TX, where I felt valued for all my intersectional identities, especially as an interpreting student of color. This optimal space provided opportunities to build new connections with Deaf People of Color, from scholars to academic leaders, and members of multiple communities. I met Deaf people, Deaf-Blind individuals, a Deaf Transgender woman, and sign language interpreters, all of whom identified as People of Color. The connection with folks who shared similar cultural and racial backgrounds was a feeling I have yearned for since I first started learning sign language. Building connections with Deaf People of Color and networking with other interpreters of color allowed me to feel I could bring my many authentic selves to the field of sign language interpreting. 

[View post in ASL]

Months later, at the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Biennial conference, NAD recognized Deaf youth ambassador, Tanea Brown, for her strategic plan to address the lack of interpreters of color within the Deaf Community. Watching Tanea’s presentation, I felt a renewed connection and inspiration from her vision to create pathways for interpreters of color.  In her presentation, Tanea shared,  

When we look at minority communities, we don’t find as many opportunities for them [Students of Color] to pursue interpreting as a career, which in the end really impacts the Deaf community and Deaf People of Color. So we need to educate minority communities and create a pathway for them to pursue interpreting as a viable career.

Creating pathways for sign language interpreters cannot be done without support and mentorship. Evidently, this issue is not only critical for aspiring Interpreters of Color but to Deaf People of Color. Uncovering the experiences of interpreting Students of Color will allow us to understand the kind of support and mentorship interpreting Students of Color need to succeed. This series installment aims to discuss how mentorship and professional information can benefit pathways for interpreting Students of Color with narratives from our research (click here for more information about our research) and from conversations with colleagues who recently graduated.  

Lack of Professional Information

Being a Black-Filipinx interpreter, both Erica West-Oyedele and Christine Nakahara provide amazing narratives that discuss the experiences of Black (West-Oyedele) and Asian Heritage (Nakahara) sign language interpreters. In the collective narratives, participants mentioned organizations they wish they knew about or had access to, such as National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters (NAOBI), and the National Asian Deaf Congress (NADC). This is parallel to what we found in our research as only a few students mentioned these organizations by name. 

Within our research, students from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) (see part 3 of the series) who shared they did not have much support or encouragement also did not have access to Deaf events.  In addition, they recognized the lack of diversity and connection in classrooms and the broader field of sign language interpreting. Furthermore, one student shared they were not interested in the field because of the lack of information available regarding pathways to obtaining advanced degrees (i.e., M.A, and Ph.D. programs). A Persian-Jewish female student who did not pursue a career in sign language interpreting shared, “It was a family expectation for me to get a master’s degree and I thought that if I became an interpreter that would be it. There is no more training. That wasn’t enough for me.” While the lack of access to professional information and organizations was prevalent for study participants, many of them also mentioned the struggle to obtain mentorship.

Lack of Mentorship

Mentorship plays a large role when analyzing the field of sign language interpreting and students’ experiences. Students who applied but were not accepted into the interpreting program did not have supported paths to meet Deaf People of Color (POC), mentors, or other peers to support them (click here for part 3 in the series). They expressed not developing an interest because of the lack of Interpreters of Color at events  When an interpreter does not see other sign language interpreters who look like them, they often feel isolated if they are the only one from that racial/ethnic group. After asking a recent graduate, a Cisgender Queer Female, about her experience, she shared, “For me, I feel I haven’t had a Filipino interpreter mentor. It feels kind of isolating because I feel like I’m the only one able to represent this demographic.” 

Clearly, Students of Color (SOC) aren’t only lacking knowledge about how to find and access professional information, but they are also lacking access to mentors of color. Spaces where sign language interpreting students of color can get support from Deaf POC and interpreters are critical to their persistence in the field and to their identity as Interpreters of Color. As West-Oyedele’s (2015) study reveals, “Interpreters of Color felt welcomed among Black Deaf consumers and created spaces with other African American/Black interpreters in the form of task forces or other social groups that allowed them to connect and be themselves” (p. 69). Connecting back to my experience at the Deaf People of Color Conference, I realized not many Students of Color (SOC) have exposure to Deaf individuals and sign language interpreters who identify like them. 

Lack of Support and Encouragement

Support can come in different shapes and forms. Our research revealed that SOC who were successful in their interpreter training programs had a great deal of social capital. For SOC, social capital includes various resources and support from the community that supports an individual’s growth as an interpreter. This includes support from ASL educators, hearing and Deaf interpreters, mentors, support from interpreting and D/deaf organizations, and even support from family, peers, friends to pursue sign language interpreting as a career. In order to get a better understanding of support in the classroom, I asked a colleague who recently graduated from an IEP. 

My first colleague, a cisgender Haitian-American man, shared:

I got support from a few students in my school’s program. I had one particular classmate who became like a brother to me. I knew I could depend on him for support at any time of [the] day if I needed. I definitely could not depend on my department to provide the support I needed because a lot of the time I was there as a token. Luckily, we [had] gatherings with all the students of color each semester to vent in a safe space about our issues or just to hang out and be ourselves.

If students feel they are unable to get support from within the department, they find support in other ways. Additionally, providing a space for SOC to gather provides them opportunities to connect and develop their own support systems. Study participants who did not apply or were not accepted into the interpreting program reported that they did not have strong social capital.

Pathways to Mentorship and Guidance

Even with the lack of information and support provided for SOC, students who succeeded found pathways to mentorship and guidance. We found that students who experienced the most success developed connections with unofficial mentors prior to attending. One research participant, a cisgender female Latino and queer-identifying student shared, “My high school ASL teacher was Latino and queer. He had the same identities as me. He told me about CSUN and encouraged me to be an interpreter.” In this case, intersectionality comes into play as the student identifies with their teacher racially and with another identity (i.e., language, sexual orientation, and gender). In situations like this, sharing two or more similar identities allows for stronger connections and more support. As a Trans POC, it was most difficult for me to find an LGBTQ POC in order to have those conversations. Once I did, I had deep conversations about how to navigate the field with my intersections, particularly when my race, gender, and sexual orientation are opposite from the main narrative.  

While some students had mentors whom they identified as white, some students shared they realized certain conversations and topics were more difficult to discuss with white mentors.  Especially, when talking about challenges in regards to race, culture, appearance (i.e., hair and best clothing), and microaggressions. Students did not feel comfortable with sharing those topics with white mentors. My first colleague shared:

I remember I asked another assigned mentor, who was a white cisgender male, his opinion of my hair. Once my question came out of my mouth, I realized that there could be so many things that could come out wrong with his answer. Fortunately, his response was appropriate, but I would have liked to have that conversation [about my hair] with people in my own community.

These stories do not necessarily mean mentors who are white are not a good match for SOC but indicate that students may feel more comfortable having conversations about their experience of race and culture with IOC. 

Another common trend identified was students reaching out to IOC outside of their program during their course of study. Often there are only a few SOC and Faculty of Color around the department for SOC to reach out for support. For example, my second colleague, a cisgender Filipino queer female shared:

Some of the support outside of the program was from different interpreters of color encouraging me to continue my journey and not to easily give up because of the overwhelming appearance of our demographic being outnumbered by the dominant non-POC interpreters. 

As we look at the current Registry of Interpreter for the Deaf (RID) statistics, this is not surprising. A recent number shows that 86% of certified interpreters identify as Euro-American/White interpreters (RID Annual 2016 Report). Sharing a cultural background or lived experiences can be a catalyst for a deeper connection and trust between mentor and student, which increases performance and motivation. In our research, the evidence seems to indicate that students who pursued sign language interpreting felt more comfortable and persisted because of the connections and mentorship relationships they had built before and during the program.


It is our collective responsibility to incorporate more diversity and support for Students of Color as they explore fields related to sign language interpreting and the Deaf Community. Whether one is creating online space for students of color and alumni of a program to connect and share resources or hosting gatherings for Students/Interpreters and Transliterators of Color, or connecting with local Deaf People of Color organizations, there is much that can be accomplished. As stakeholders, educators, sign language interpreting agencies, seasoned and newer interpreters, know that you can be an agent of change. Supporting one another allows us to do better work and allows our consumers to receive the best possible services.

In order to continue this discussion, here are some questions to consider:  

  1. How do Interpreting Training Programs support Heritage Signers of color, Deaf Interpreters of color, Trilingual students of color?
  2. How do we lessen the feelings of ‘tokenism’ when there are a small number of students of color in a program?  
  3. How do we create authentic spaces in our IEP’s that allow all students to feel authentic and valued? 
  4. How do we become more intentional about matching mentors with students of color? If we don’t have access to interpreters of color, what ways are we providing professional information and mentors that allow them to build connections with seasoned interpreters of color? 
  5. When seeking to open student’s minds, how do we incorporate conversation of power, privilege, and oppression to dismantle structures of knowledge?


Nakahara, C. (2016). “Expanding the collective narrative: Exploring the experiences of American Sign Language/English Interpreters of Asian Heritage.” [Dissertation]  

National Association of the Deaf – NAD Facebook Live  (July 8th, 2016). #NADYAP Final Round #NAD2016 Conference. Retrieved from

Registry of Interpreter for the Deaf (RID). (2016). 2016 Annual report change. Renewal, Recovery. Retrieved from

West Oyedele, E. (2015)., “Persistence of African-American/Black signed language interpreters in the United States: The importance of culture and capital” [Dissertation].

Other Contributors to this Series:

Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton

Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton is an associate professor at California State University Northridge in the Department of Deaf Studies and core faculty for the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. Her research focuses on equity and access, identity development, and the educational history of Deaf students, faculty, and staff with a particular interest in the intersections of race, gender, and disability.

Dr. Will Garrow

Will Garrow, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/him/his) is from upstate New York, where he was first introduced to the Deaf Community through his career as a professional snowboarder. All of his degrees are from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies, a Master of Arts in Linguistics, and a doctorate in Linguistics. As a faculty member at California State University, Northridge, his teaching mainly focuses on how oppression works in American society, Deaf Culture, and ASL Linguistics.  When Will is not teaching, he can be found either on the snow in the mountains or splatting balls in the racquetball court. 

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.

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Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders

Partnership between new and seasoned sign language interpreters

Pairing newer interpreters with seasoned mentors – selected based on wisdom, rather than credentials – encourages mutual learning and true growth in the sign language interpreting profession.

I was talking with a fellow sign language interpreter and she mentioned another colleague of ours who had just received her national certification. I commented that it was a good thing and that I had been mentored by this particular person. This fellow interpreter I was speaking with looked at me in horror and asked, “Why would you mentor with her?! She is way too ‘old-school’ to provide good mentoring.”

Value Experience

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have heard that comment about some of my mentors. I came into the field from another career that was developed based on hands-on experience and learning from a professional with more years in the field. I brought that philosophy with me to sign language interpreting and I have never regretted that decision. Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned are from interpreters who have lived and breathed this field for 30+ years. Most of these people did not go through interpreter training programs, were interpreting before RID even existed, and helped establish the first RID certification exams. These are the sign language interpreters that have been tested by life and work and have a wealth of knowledge because of that experience. As shared by Stacey Webb in her post, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter: to be successful, young interpreters need to develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals.

Yet in this field, we do not seem to value those experiences unless the interpreter has the right letters behind his/her name.


For the life of me I cannot figure out why we, as a field, have become so credential-obsessed. In focusing so much on certification, we ignore what truly makes a good interpreter: experience, language skills, and wisdom. Wisdom is defined as: “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.” A person can only gain such a quality by working in a profession for an extended length of time. This is not a skill that can be taught, read about, or tested. Our obsession with credentialing causes us to push aside our founders, original teachers, and valuable living resources of these experienced and wise interpreters. These are the people that have worked to establish this field as a profession and, in turn, have allowed many of us to interpret for a living. With all the uncertainty and anger surrounding certification, why do we seek out mentors that are specifically certified? Why do we rely on certification standards that are in question to improve our own skills when we have a plethora of seasoned interpreters still working in our field?

The drive to seek out a mentor who has received national credentials could be motivated by fear and desire to  “pass” the test.  The testing process is expensive and time-consuming. Many states do not have a permanent testing site, so candidates have to take time off of work and accrue travel expenses in order to sit for the exam.  With the inconsistent results seen from the test??, interpreters are frustrated and angry at being stuck in a circle of uncertainty that affects their ability to work.

I am concerned about this newly-established testing system that does not value the experience and knowledge of the seasoned working interpreter.

Newer interpreters have to prioritize passing the test over actually gaining critical knowledge, experience, and the people skills required to be a truly competent interpreter in the field. The shifting of priorities is causing a split within the field that is affecting not only sign language interpreters but our consumers, as well.

Pairing Professionals

If interpreting is considered a practice profession, why do we not follow the lead set in other practicing professions of our time? Lawyers, Doctors, and skilled craftsmen learn from the most experienced members of their field, not the newest professionals that have just passed a certification test. Each of the professions mentioned have standard certifications that are well-known and respected inside and outside their field. Learning in a practice profession comes from those who have “practiced.” In his post, New Lamps for Old Apprenticeship in Sign Language Interpreting, Rico Peterson argues that exposure to real work in real settings is fundamental to mixing and refining the palette of skills that sign language interpreting requires.

Mentorships and skill development are based in the pairing of a newer professional with a seasoned one and allowing them to learn from each other. No one ever said you have to agree with your mentor 100% of the time. The key is to observe, question, and discuss in hopes to gain insight into decisions. Only then can we truly grow as a profession.

The Value of New

This does not mean that newer interpreters have nothing to offer the profession– far from it. The newest research and interpreting theories are being taught in the ITPs. Interpreters who are working in the field every day can greatly benefit from working with someone who has just learned that information. Also, newer interpreters are hungry for knowledge, language, and experiences. Those of us who have worked in this profession for several years get tired and can sometimes lose the passion we had for the field when we first arrived. Being around newer interpreters can rekindle our desire to learn and further develop. I often find working with an intern causes me to analyze my work in a deeper way and that benefits me greatly. The partnership of newer and seasoned interpreters can be a win-win for all of us and the profession as a whole.

Mentor Qualifications

Our ITPs have a limited time with new interpreters and can’t teach them everything. Further, there is a limit to what one can learn in a classroom and from a book. At a certain point, new sign language interpreters have to get out in the field and do the work with an experienced mentor that can help them navigate the bumps along the way. Mentors do not need to pass a specific exam to prove they are qualified to interpret or mentor. Their qualifications are proven in the stories they share, the horrors and joys they carry, the language skills they have developed and the wisdom they can pass on to those growing in this field. These interpreters are our teachers and deserve our respect for what they have accomplished.


Seasoned interpreters also have an obligation. They have an obligation to remain present in the field, to keep learning and growing and striving, and to join the younger generation in continued research and development of the field. Stating “I am too old school for that” is not acceptable, but is a cop-out for striving for what is best for both the sign language interpreting community and the Deaf community. Learn alongside newer interpreters and add your wisdom and experience. Offer to mentor a new professional in the field, audit a class at your local ITP, or just make yourself available to newer interpreters for questions and discussion. Your skills and knowledge are valuable; the current teachings and research are a benefit as well– for each of us.

Some Wisdom

A Mentor is “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter.” Let us not forget this definition as we continue to progress the profession of sign language interpreting forward.

We must learn from our past, which includes the people who lived it. Because an interpreter does not have the perfect certification letters behind their name does not make them insignificant to our community. Our predecessors have much to teach us about language, community, and culture, and we must not forget to include their wisdom in our daily practice.

How has a seasoned professional helped your work?