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Profile of ATA 2017–2018 School Outreach Contest Winner: Jessica Sanchez

This year’s School Outreach winner took an innovate approach to teaching students about her work—a live interpreting demonstration with headsets for everyone!
Jessica Sanchez, a Spanish interpreter and interpreter coordinator for the Fayette County Public School District in Kentucky, won a free registration to ATA’s 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans through ATA’s School Outreach Contest. Jessica won the contest with an engaging photo (see below) taken during her presentation at Harrison Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky.

Jessica Sanchez explains the difference between translation and interpreting to students at Harrison Elementary School’s Career Day in Lexington, Kentucky.

Jessica Sanchez explains the difference between translation and interpreting to students at Harrison Elementary School’s Career Day in Lexington, Kentucky.

Interpreting a Storybook for Students

Jessica often speaks to students in her school district about translation and interpreting. For her winning photo presentation, Harrison Elementary School invited her to speak to 10 rotating groups of students from multiple grade levels for Career Day. Each presentation lasted about 15–20 minutes.

“The population at this school is very diverse, so I started my presentation by greeting students in Spanish and then asking who speaks a language other than English at home,” Jessica says. Her main goal was to make sure the students understood
the difference between translation and interpreting.

Jessica used a poster board decorated with images and flags from all around the world. “I included pictures to help students see the difference between translators and interpreters,” she explains. “I had a cartoon image of two people talking and an interpreter interpreting for them. I also had a document translation to show them: one paper with English and one with Spanish. Visuals are great for kids!”

Jessica explained to the students that just as doctors have tools to make sure their patients’ eyes and ears are in good health, interpreters also have tools. Jessica brought interpreting headsets for the students to wear while she interpreted a storybook for them. The teacher stood in front of the students, reading in English, while Jessica stood out of sight in the hall interpreting what the teacher was reading into the headsets. “Seeing the countless smiles on students’ faces and how they covered their mouths in disbelief when they heard me in action was amazing,” she says.

“The best part for me was that the teachers and staff learned the difference between a translator and an interpreter,” Jessica says. Another highlight for Jessica was when one student excitedly proclaimed, “I want to be an interpreter when I grow up!” and one of his peers responded, “But you only speak English!”

From a Bilingual Childhood to a Bilingual Career

Jessica was born and raised in the border town of Weslaco, Texas, where 95% of the population is Hispanic. “I was an English Language Learner student at school. My parents only spoke Spanish and all the ‘important’ people in my community only spoke English,” Jessica explains. Because of this, Jessica says she often served as her parents’ interpreter. Ever since then, serving as an informal interpreter has always been a part of her life.

“When I worked at a medical facility in Texas, everyone there spoke Spanish,” she says. “Oftentimes the doctors spoke Spanish, but not well enough, so I would end up interpreting for them.”

After moving to Kentucky in 2003 to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Jessica’s informal interpreting work continued. “When I came to Kentucky, I worked as a bank teller, but was often pulled away from my desk to interpret for other employees and customers.”

The same thing happened when Jessica began working with her local school district in 2004. She started as a substitute teacher, then worked as a teaching assistant, then moved into a registrar position, and then on to budget and staffing. Jessica says she was constantly being pulled away to interpret while working in all these positions.

“When I saw that the position of interpreting coordinator for the school district was available, I knew the job was for me! It was so nice to finally have a job title that reflected what I had already been doing for years at all my other jobs,” she says.

Jessica coordinates approximately 85 interpreters for 40 different languages in the school district’s 66+ schools and programs. She also interprets at school conferences, special education meetings, family nights, and anywhere else she is needed. Jessica says she likes to interpret as often as she can so she can better understand and advise her interpreters when they are faced with a difficult situation.

Jessica completed the “Bridging the Gap” certification for medical interpreters through the Cross Cultural Health Care Program and an interpreter certification program through the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. She is planning to take ATA’s certification exam in the near future.

Multilingualism and Multiculturalism in Lexington, Kentucky

Jessica admits that she experienced culture shock when she first moved from Texas to Kentucky. “Everyone in my hometown looked like me and spoke my language, so when I moved to diverse Lexington, I just wasn’t used to it,” she remembers. But over time, Jessica embraced her new multicultural city. Not only does she work as an interpreter coordinator for a wide range of languages, but she also partners with Global Lex, a local non-governmental organization that assists refugee and multicultural families in the area. “Their data and records show that there are 160 languages spoken in the city of Lexington, Kentucky alone,” she says excitedly.

Jessica has two children that were born and raised in Lexington and says that it’s amazing to see them make friends with people from all around the world. “They’ll come home from school and tell me about how their friends celebrate different holidays and speak different languages than we do,” she says. “It’s so beautiful!”

Jessica is also very proud of how her school district celebrates its students’ multicultural backgrounds. She says that many schools host “International Night” for students and their families. During the school day, in the hall and cafeteria, students walk to tables dedicated to every country represented by the student population. The kids get a passport and go from table to table to get their stamps and learn about the countries represented. Jessica often sits at the Mexico table and teaches students about traditional quinceañeras (a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her transition from childhood to maturity). Then, that same evening, the students’ parents come to school to watch the parade of flags, where each student walks with the flag from their country of origin. The day wraps up with a potluck featuring dishes from every country. When Jessica participates, she usually cooks Mexican tamales.

Another initiative Jessica is proud of in the district is the new “Seal of Biliteracy” program. High school seniors who speak, read, and write in a language other than English can take an exam to confirm their biliteracy. If they pass the exam, they receive the seal of biliteracy on their diploma, which helps them stand out when applying for jobs and college.

“I love what I do,” Jessica says. “It’s one thing when you get up to do a job, but it’s another thing to wake up and do something you love.”

Getting Involved in the School Outreach Effort

Jessica says she was honored to receive free registration to ATA’s Annual Conference for winning the School Outreach Contest, especially since she attended the conference for the first time last year and enjoyed the experience. “I’m looking forward to continuing this relationship with ATA,” she says.

Join our efforts! The 2018–2019 School Outreach Contest is now open and the winner will receive free registration to ATA’s 60th Annual Conference in Palm Springs, California, October 23–26, 2019. The deadline for contest submissions is July 18, 2019. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/school-outreach-contest.

Need Some Tips for Your School Outreach Presentation?

No problem! Just visit ATA’s online School Outreach Resource Center. Our goal is to give you quick, convenient access to material you can use in making presentations about the translation and interpreting professions. The material is organized by grade level. Each level includes What to Say, How to Say It, Extra Credit, and Presentations.

  • Tips on speaking to elementary school students
  • Tips on speaking to middle school students
  • Tips on speaking to high school students
  • Tips on speaking to college/graduate students

Just go to http://bit.ly/school-outreach-contest and click on Resource Materials.

Tell Us Your Story!

If you visit schools to speak to students about translation and interpreting, we would love to hear from you—whether or not you decide to submit a photo to the contest. Email School Outreach Coordinator Meghan Konkol at meghan@fr-en.com with a description of when and where you presented and let us know about your memorable experience. You can read other School Outreach stories here: https://atanet.org/ata_school/school_outreach_stories.php


Molly Yurick is a Spanish>English translator specializing in the tourism, hospitality, and airline industries. She has worked as a medical interpreter in Minnesota and as a cultural ambassador for the Ministry of Education in Spain. She has a BA in Spanish and global studies and a certificate in medical interpreting from the University of Minnesota. She is currently living in northern Spain. Contact: molly@yuricktranslations.com.

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