Learn how aspiring interpreters are conducting action research within an interpreting program at Viterbo University. Students are required to participate in and reflect on a data-driven research project about interpreting in the community.
If you think of doing research and immediately conjure up notions of lab coats, lab rats, and test tubes, you’re not alone. Full disclosure: in my wildest memories of science experiments and lab reports, I can still feel the explosion and smell the char of burnt hair. But stop right there! Research in the booming field of interpreting may not be any less risky, but I doubt you’ll burn your eyebrows. In fact, the latest experiment that interpreting students and faculty at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, undertook has proven effective and exciting for them, for their very proud professor (me), and even for language access services in their community. Allow me to explain.
As an assistant professor of interpreting and languages at Viterbo University, it has taken me some time to begin to understand the stakes of teaching aspiring interpreters of diverse backgrounds, differing ages, assorted life experiences, and varying professional and linguistic skills. I found out very quickly that while most of my students had a desire to become well-trained interpreting professionals, unequal social realities for bilingual minority students presented real obstacles to their potential for academic success (e.g., financial challenges, immigration dilemmas, and a lack of positive mentorship networks). As an alternative to sleepless nights, I set out to find solutions.
All Experiments Begin with Questions
In observing and talking with many of the interpreting students I was encountering, it seemed that the students who struggled most academically in their quest to become trained interpreters were the ones who had multiple cultural identities as well as well-developed initial bilingual skills. The students who were less bilingual tended to be the ones performing better academically in their interpreting classes. What seemed evident, however, was that the students who struggled had few structures in place to support them in their journey toward a professional life in the field. Usually these students were first-generation, underrepresented, and students of color. Usually it was these students who quickly dropped out of the Community Interpreting Certificate Program.
What would keep students enrolled in classes until graduation? How could we encourage students through the challenges they faced more effectively? What sort of teaching practices might bring about better results? These were the questions I began to ask.
A Mentorship Pilot Program Was Born
To answer these questions, I began to look toward what other institutions and educators were doing to support underrepresented students. Mentorship seemed like a logical and promising solution to keeping students in school. But how? There was no lack in models for mentoring, but which to choose? One that seemed promising was to incorporate course-embedded undergraduate research as a pillar for effective student retention. Before you start snoring or revert back to images of mice in cages, let me try to combat a few natural questions that might be coming up in your mind.
Why Undergraduate Research?
Why incorporate undergraduate research into an interpreting curriculum when what students need is to develop their practical skills? Here are a few reasons that support undergraduate research in a formal interpreting training program.
To combat low enrollment and unstable retention at universities today, many institutions have begun implementing high-impact practices (HIPs) into their university curriculums. HIPs have proven consistently to improve student retention and academic performance, especially among underserved student populations (underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students) in their first year in college.1
One type of HIP that has proven particularly effective is undergraduate research, which, apart from encouraging the development of research skills, aids students in problem solving, thereby boosting both their satisfaction and active engagement with their academic experience.2
Recent literature on HIPs also urges faculty who implement undergraduate research into their curriculums to: “provide mentoring rather than just program oversight and attend to the quality of the mentoring relationship (balancing challenge with support), [and] provide opportunities for ‘real-life’ applications, whether through publication, presentations, or project implementation.”3
Given the evidence and recommendations of this research and the relationship it has to mentorship, undergraduate research seemed like something that was worth a try for the population of interpreting students we were looking to retain. Students still did many practical exercises to improve their linguistic, cultural, and ethical competencies via role-playing, readings, discussion, as well as both self and peer reflection. However, they were also guided through action research by means of the careful implementation of this project into their coursework.
What Did Students Actually Do?
In their first semester, students read literature about the state of the field of community interpreting, interacted with community members about the state of the field, formulated research questions, and wrote a research proposal that they submitted to the university’s Institutional Review Board. The execution of their project in the second semester required them to develop questionnaires to answer their research questions, distribute them, and analyze the data.
In this particular pilot project, students decided to survey the local police department in their community to see what the police understood and were doing about language access services for limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals. What they found may be no surprise to you:
- LEP individuals are still providing their own interpreters or use family and friends when working with law enforcement.
- Bilingual staff members or bilingual police officers who are not trained interpreters are managing their work with LEP individuals without professional language access services.
- There is confusion about whether forms or other informational documents have been translated for LEP individuals involved with local law enforcement.
- A uniform understanding of how to address language barriers while serving LEP individuals has not been established.
Though practicing interpreters and translators are aware of this information, the hard facts that students brought to light in their local police department provided tangibility to the situation for the students who aspire to work in language access fields in the near future. They realized that what they were reading about and what we were talking about in class was happening in their backyards, with the people they know and law enforcement officers they trust (or don’t trust). They were astonished!
As a final step, students contributed to the body of research on interpreting and language access in their immediate community and raised awareness about the usefulness of research among senior colleagues and interpreting users by sharing their findings at a conference of interpreting professionals that took place on campus at the end of the year. This culminating step was particularly exciting because as students shared their research with experienced interpreting professionals (inspiring and impressing these professionals with their research methods and skills, I might add), those professionals were able to encourage and mentor the incoming practitioners to the field. What an opportunity for mutual professional development!
Was the Project Successful?
Did the HIP of incorporating undergraduate research into the community interpreting program lead to students’ academic and professional development? At first glance, yes! Initial conclusions based on self-reports from student surveys reveal that students who carried out undergraduate research were made to understand that they are a valuable part of the professional field and the community, even if they didn’t feel fully ready to practice in the field. They consistently reported that the most rewarding aspects of this project included presenting their findings to interpreting practitioners and the teamwork required for carrying out the project. In addition, they were able to connect the world of interpreting research and education to interpreting practitioners and the community, which is an important success in the field of language access services.
When asked what aspects of this project students found most exciting, one undergraduate researcher affirms, “That we get to see actual outcomes and statistics, and that this might help the community see how much more help is needed with Spanish.” A second researcher reports: “It’s giving me insight about an issue that’s important. This project isn’t just one of those [where you] ‘collect the data and write a summary about it and then you’re done.’ It’s a project where we can actually do something about the results to help fix the problems and fill in the gaps.”
Most telling is the response of a third research participant when asked to describe the benefits of doing this project to a future student participant. She states: “This project increases the understanding of the need for professionally trained interpreters in the community. It also provides the opportunity to enhance necessary professional skills, such as academic writing, research, data analysis, and presentation.”
One More Step Toward Professionalizing the Field
What has most impressed me about the action research carried out by these students is that their work required them to take part in the slow transformation of a community. These aspiring interpreters are contributing to the continued professionalization of the field. As one student wrote, “I really like this group project because I’m very good friends with the other members and I have a great mentor.” This is the sort of environment I dream of seeing among practicing interpreters: teamwork, supportive networks, and mentorship.
Next Steps? Keep On Keeping On
For now, and considering the small sample size of students in this pilot project, it’s hard to say whether undergraduate research has led to increased student enrollment and better student retention for the interpreting program at Viterbo. What I can report, however, is that all interpreting studies students who did undergraduate research in 2017–18 completed their program by the end of their project with more confidence that the interpreting professionals they look up to have their backs.
As for me moving forward, I plan to keep asking questions as a teacher and an interpreter. I encourage my students to do the same. Research is sometimes about failure (and burnt eyebrows). Sometimes it’s about success, trial and error, and improved methods and re-experimentation. It’s about asking the questions and coming to find that in the end you have even more.
It’s my hope that based on the information that we obtained from the police department in our community that this year’s students can begin to build a training program to better educate law enforcement about how to provide language access services for the future. It’s together that we can solve problems and contribute to the positive transformation of the communities around us, even if sometimes it’s just one word at a time.
- Kuh, George and Carol Schneider. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Accesses Them, and Why They Matter (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008); Also see: Brownell, Jayne, and Lynn Swaner. Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).
- Kuh, George and Carol Schneider. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Accesses Them, and Why They Matter (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008); Also see: Olson-McBride, Leah, Holly Hassemer, and Jerry Hoepner. “Broadening Participation: Engaging Academically At-Risk Freshmen in Undergraduate Research,” CUR Quarterly, Fall 2016).
- Kuh, George and Carol Schneider. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Accesses Them, and Why They Matter (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008).
Michelle Pinzl is the coordinator of the online Community Interpreting Certificate Program and an assistant professor at Viterbo University in Wisconsin, where she teaches Spanish, French, and interpreting studies. She has a master’s degree in foreign languages and intercultural management from the Université de Limoges and is currently working toward a doctorate in translation and interpreting studies at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona. She is a state-certified court interpreter (Wisconsin) and a certified medical interpreter through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters. She also interprets for social service agencies, schools, businesses, as well as for various sectors of the farming industry in Wisconsin. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.