Become a Sign Language Interpreter: Online Bachelor Degree Helps Fill Interpreter Shortage

When Dr. Leilani Johnson looked into starting an extended study program for American Sign Language interpreters at University of Northern Colorado, she searched around for a model. There weren't any in the US offering the sort of program she was after. Dr. Johnson, herself, had attended a distance learning program through Nova Southeastern University at Fort Lauderdale, FL. But there were no such programs offered for interpreters.

In many states in the US, there is only a single on-campus English-ASL interpretation program. For students, that means relocation, expense and leaving jobs, etc. Distance learning would enabled sign language interpreter students to attend college, work on degrees and advance careers without leaving home.

No DO-IT Staff or Students on Campus

Dr. Johnson finally found the model she was after in Open University in England. Like Open, UNC DOIT students and staff, with very few exceptions, don’t come to campus. DOIT (Distance Opportunities for Interpreter Training) teachers and students can come together for online classes from anywhere in the world. Classes run fall and spring semesters. In the summer, students and teachers meet for four weeks of resident classes to practice what they’ve been learning.

UNC's Program Prepares Students to Fill Much Needed Positions

Dr. Johnson designed the UNC program for one purpose – to provide students with the education and experience that would ensure they would be properly prepared to leave school and step into the interpreting jobs that so desperately needed them.

Up until very recently, interpreter programs were only two year programs. Dr. Johnson felt the training was too condensed, leaving the graduates ill prepared. “Graduates don’t leave two year programs with the confidence in their competencies to go enter the work force,” she said in a March 2019 telephone interview.

Students Need ASL Skills

In order for students at UNC to take full advantage of the four-year degree program, they need to start off well prepared. “Our candidates have to show ASL 1-4 competency. They have to be conversational,” says Dr. Johnson. “That can come from high school or college classes, natural acquisition, like learning from a deaf family member, or having a mentor…It doesn’t matter where they learn it as long as they can demonstrate ASL competency.”

If a student doesn’t pass the pre-admission screening, Dr. Johnson says there are a few things that typically are holding them back. “People who teach themselves frequently don’t get to learn the language structure. They don’t realize that English doesn’t equal ASL.” Learning about the Deaf culture is another area not often taught on tapes. “Like how do you relate to someone who is deaf? Or how do you introduce yourself to the Deaf community?”

Some students have the ASL training, but not enough Liberal Arts credits. “Joining two languages and two cultures isn’t easy,” she says. “The students need to have a more well-rounded academic background to do the work we’re called to do.”

Louisiana Sponsoring 10 Students

The state of Louisiana felt this program important enough – and their interpreter shortage severe enough – that they are paying the way for 10 students to complete it. Thirty-thousand dollars per student to finish their bachelor's degrees on the condition that the students return to Louisiana after completion and serve five years in the public schools to repay the favor.

The shortage of sign language interpreters is nationwide. And there aren’t many schools able to provide proper training and education for those wishing to make that their career. But now, thanks to UNC and Dr. Leilani Johnson, that gap is becoming just a bit easier to fill.

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