High demand for interpreters? Fresno State’s program aims to fill that

Victoria Laws (pictured above) is a student in Fresno State's ASL Interpreting program, studying to be an interpreter. (Zaeem Shaikh/The Collegian)

While preparing to graduate from Saint Mary’s High School in the spring of 2017, Sarah Miracle had some crucial decisions to make regarding the future of her academic career.

Not only did Miracle have to consider the financial cost of her going to college, but she had to ensure the school she chose had her major of choice: interpreting. 

After applying to different scholarships and programs within California, Miracle was ready to enroll in a community college, but got a call from the Smittcamp Honors College at Fresno State. The Smittcamp Program would cover Miracle’s tuition and housing costs, but what sold Fresno State for Miracle was its interpreting program, one of the few on the West Coast. 

Now a junior in the program, Miracle has started the internship portion of the program centered around educational interpreting. Miracle has been grateful to be a part of Fresno State’s interpreting program, but is cognizant that graduating with her bachelor’s of arts in interpreting is just one step of many in order to be fluent and qualified in interpreting where there is a high demand but a low amount of certified interpreters. 

“The professors really want you to do well,” Miracle said. “I love that they put such an emphasis on deaf culture and getting out into the community and getting that exposure.”

Interpreting, though a highly sought after skill, is a field lacking adequate personnel to fulfill the high demand. Since interpreting takes a long time to master, there are few people who have the valid certification requirements and language comprehension to be successful in the workforce. 

This issue is further compounded by the high demand for interpreters, which means that there are few interpreters who have the time to serve as teachers and professors for students. This means that universities, like Fresno State, can only take in so many interpreting students because there are not enough professors to train students. 

“Part of the reason there are so few programs is because there are so few interpreters in general. In the U.S., there’s a shortage of interpreters and there are so few people who know sign language,” said Dr. Serena Johnson, director of the interpreter program at Fresno State. “Because there are so few people who know sign language, a lot of them are actually working as sign language interpreters, so they don’t really have the time or the inclination to take themselves out of the pool of sign language interpreters and start working at the college level.”

The lack of college professors is also furthered by the fact that, in order to work at a 4-year university, professors need at least a master’s degree. The number of interpreting masters and graduate programs is even smaller than the amount of bachelor’s programs, so this leaves few viable candidates who can work at the university level. 

Even when one graduates with a bachelor’s degree, interpreters have to go on to take a certification test in order for them to meet the qualifications to work in the field. American Sign Language (ASL) is difficult to master, however, so students often wait between six months to five years before taking their certification exam. 

“An average person who becomes skilled in American Sign Language, it really requires about seven years to really be immersed into that language,” said Dr. Rosemary Wanis, a certified deaf interpreter at Fresno State. “For most students who graduate, they really aren’t ready for certification straight away.”

Erin Ruiz, a graduate from the Fresno State interpreter program in spring of 2008, is one of the few interpreting students who took her certification test right out of college and went straight to work in educational interpreting. 

Now working as the lead interpreter for the center for faculty excellence at Fresno State, Ruiz said the program at Fresno State prepared her well by giving her support and laying a strong foundation for her career. Ruiz emphasized the importance of continuing one’s education by going to workshops and participating in professional development opportunities. 

“It is important to continue immersing yourself in the language, so interacting with the deaf community and attending deaf events to build a strong network and a support system of interpreters,” Ruiz said. 

Not only are students expected to have a grasp on the language, but they are also expected to have cultural sensitivities and knowledge before they enter the field of interpreting.

“About 90 percent of the interpreters come from a family without a deaf member and that means that the interpreters who weren’t born in the deaf culture need to know what it’s like to be in a family who has deaf and use American Sign Language every day as well as being a role model of language,” Wanis said. “So, we really need to make sure our interpreters have good ethics, a good strong foundation in American Sign Language and, also, good skills.”  

One of the ways Fresno State’s program encourages students to get comfortable with ASL and the deaf community is through requiring students to go to deaf community events as well as an internship requirement students have to fulfill before graduation.

“It’s great because you get multiple perspectives from everyone who is involved in interpreting situations and they focus a lot on the ethics and introducing you to new ideas and research in the field,” Miracle said. “At deaf events, the community is very welcoming, you just have to make sure you have the right attitude going into it, recognizing you’re entering their culture and you have to be respectful of their language.”

Wanis emphasized that an interpreter’s role is to serve the deaf community, provide support for the person they’re interpreting and to coordinate between the deaf and hearing community. An interpreter has to be selfless in their role and recognize they are there to help the deaf community.

A fall 2019 graduate from the interpreting program, Sergio Anguiano Jr., has served as the most recent testament to the importance and difficulty in taking on interpreting as a career. 

Anguiano started his academic career within the interpreting program after he was inspired to pursue interpreting as a profession in high school. Since graduating from the program, he has been working as an educational interpreter in Fresno K-12 schools.

Having taken his Educational Interpreting Preparation Exam, Anguiano is waiting on his skill level results before he takes his certification exam in the next year. 

“There’s so much to learn. Fresno State gave me that start and now it’s my responsibility to continue my education,” Anguiano said. “As interpreters, it is always our responsibility to keep learning, we never stop learning.”

Victoria Laws, a student in the ASL interpreting program at Fresno State, said the best part of the program is the people.

“The real magic of the ASL interpreting program is the people in it. I made friends here that are now like family to me and will turn into colleagues after graduation,” Laws said. “The professors are amazing; I know I could use their office hours to talk to them about anything, program-related or otherwise, and find support and encouragement. I feel so blessed to be a part of this program.”

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