Connection Conversations – Rhoda Smietanski talks ALSE and Interpreting

Podcast Director Sam Levrault talks with Rhoda Smietanski about her experiences with American Sign Language (ASL,) the ASLE and Interpreting Programs, and opportunities available to students through Tulsa Community College (TCC) and in our very community.


Connection Conversations is an ongoing series by the TCC Connection, TCC’s student newspaper based at Tulsa Community College in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

NOTE: The episode was originally recorded in FALL 2019.

Music by The Odyssey, “75 to Ramona” 

Episode and transcript edited by Sam Levrault 


Editor’s Note: changes have been made for clarification purposes.


Sam Levrault: Welcome to Connection Conversations – a series where we talk with members of the community, students, faculty, and staff. I’m Sam Levrault, I’m the Managing Editor and I am also Podcast Director, here at the TCC Connection. And today, I am joined by Rhoda Smietanski.

Rhoda Smietanski: Yes.

People always have trouble with my name so I like to try with somebody else’s.

And you are the Assistant Professor of ASLE, which is American Sign Language Education and you are also here to talk specifically about Interpreting.

Exactly.

Great. So, thank you for joining me.

I am very pleased to be here and thanks for having me.

So, we’re going to learn a little bit about: your background, if it’s in Tulsa, how you came to Tulsa if not, and how you got involved with interpreting and how you joined TCC.


So, do you want to start with your background?

Sure, I was born and grew up in Illinois. I promise, I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow of my whole life. But, it’s important because that sets the stage.

So, I grew up in Illinois and when I was fifteen, my family moved abroad. And, at that time I spoke English – only – and went through a significant culture shock arriving in Belgium and speaking English and living in a small, rural-ish town outside of Brussels where I couldn’t communicate directly with anyone. That is what gave me an interest in language and culture and communication.

We lived there for four years and I learned French and loved it. And then, when I was nineteen we moved back to the States.

Fast forward a few years, I was a student at TCC. So, I took the American Sign Language Interpreting program as a student here and graduated in 2003.

How did that mesh well with the different languages? Because it is American Sign Language – So, just to start there are different iterations of Sign Language, right?

Exactly! Yes there are. Hundreds, actually, just as there are spoken languages. Good job – that’s a common myth that people assume it is international.

So, I didn’t learn any sign language while we lived in Belgium – I only learned spoken French. And then, when we came back to the Midwest, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in French.

I had already had some exposure to American Sign Language throughout my high school years, and just wanted to learn it. It was like innate in me, I just had to learn it – and learned American Sign Language.

It’s just another language –

Yeah!

So, you were a student here at TCC. How did you join the staff or faculty?

So, after I graduated TCC, I began a career in interpreting here in the Tulsa area – loved it – loved every part of it.

After a decade in the field, I was invited back to teach adjunct and I did one course. I discovered I also love teaching and at that time, I decided to go to grad school so I would be qualified to become faculty.

Do you notice a difference between teaching people how to interpret versus just helping people through interpreting?

Yeah, very much so.

One really important principle for any interpreters is that we are impartial communication facilitators – meaning, when I am interpreting, I don’t add to the conversation that the two consumers are having. It’s their conversation – they own the content. And, I make sure they understand each other well. But, I, as the interpreter, don’t participate in it.

Does that make sense?

[Hums in agreement]

So, that part in interpreting is really focused work to make sure the consumers are understanding each other, and the interpreter has to be really self-disciplined to not be involved.

Then, on the teaching side of interpreting, suddenly, I have a voice and I generate content – I get to do that part of communication experience that as an interpreter – you don’t.

So, you kind of have to teach the mindset for your students to have so they are able to provide the service for others.

Yeah, a big part of our classes [is] professionalism – there is a whole code of ethics and we start that at the very beginning courses in the program – building that philosophical mindset of how to approach your work. Then, there is the technical aspect of transferring meaning between two languages.

Are there exceptions, say for example, performances or art pieces where you have to be more expressive?

Oh, expression is a huge part of our work – every assignment. Whether you are interpreting at a doctor’s office or on a stage. It’s a huge part of the work.

I imagine there is also a lot of research that would help to do ahead of events or working with people, if you can.

Yes, it is always helpful – any preparation materials. Whether it is lyrics to a song, or a program, or a PowerPoint. Anything is helpful.

So, in my department, ASLE, we have four majors:

There is ASL studies, Deaf Education, Interpreter Education, and Services to the Deaf.

Any student taking any of those majors will all take ASL 1 through (ASL) 4. Those are our four language classes. Everyone will also take a class called Deaf Culture and History.

Because it is very important to know the culture and history of the language you are learning.

Yes, those are the courses that everyone takes.

On the interpreting side, students start with Introduction to Interpreting. They take Interpreting 1, and hopefully, they take that the same semester as they take ASL to English Interpreting 1.

One class we focus on using English – that’s our starting point – we find meaning in the English and then we communicate it to American Sign Language. The other one is vice versa – watching sign language, finding meaning, and then saying out loud in spoken English.

Because you need to know both, really well.

Yes, and it’s really different skills.

Their second semester in the program, they do Interpreting 2 and ASL to English Interpreting 2. We have a course called Interpreting and Specialized studies. That one is typically a student favorite. You sample all different settings where a professional interpreter can work. So, you already mentioned performance arts, that’s one. We touch on interpreting healthcare, interpreting education, interpreting in religious settings.

Would you say business and law, too, would be very important sometimes?

Absolutely, we focus on entry level interpreting settings, and law is for an advance practitioner, with specialized credentials.

Taking these would help get you set up in the long run.


Exactly.

In their final semester, they take Interpreting 3, and an internship.

All of those are available, but which courses do you focus on, or teach directly?

I have taught all of them. We’re a small department, so, we have adjuncts teach some of them – but I teach a little bit of everything.


Okay, so wherever you are needed, you are able to jump in and help out. That just shows how helpful it is to know all the aspects.

So, through that program – what degrees or certifications are available? I know there were a couple that were university transfers and some were certificates. Do you find students often start here (TCC) and later transfer to those other programs?

Yeah, we have kind of a fifty-fifty mix, I would say. I don’t have hard data on it – but we have a lot of non-traditional students who already have undergraduate degrees from university and a career in something else and as adults, they’re deciding they want a new career and they’re coming to TCC looking for that.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone says, “I always wanted to learn Sign Language,” because I hear that all the time.

Here’s your chance to, right?

Yes!


So, our certificate, that’s a perfect option for those students. Because they already have the degree, they just need to learn the specialized skill.

Then, we have traditional students coming straight out of high school, seeking an associate’s degree. When I advise students, I encourage everyone to do long-term planning and look for transfer to university. That’s a big step for working toward national certification – to even take the national exam for interpreters, American Sign Language interpreters, you are required to have a bachelor’s degree first.

Okay. So, for the internship, you do a lot of it, here in Tulsa, right? There’re opportunities here in Tulsa to use ASL, [and] interpreting in general. What are some examples for students have done in the past?

Yeah, we have students right now interning with Tulsa Public Schools, with some local churches, and a big part of the work is interning with agencies. There are several in the state, and agencies will send interpreters on appointments anywhere humans communicate.

A lot of medical appointments, deaf patients seeing care physicians, or special treatments. [Also,] a lot of job training type things. Just a huge variety.

So, no matter your interest, you can use the skill. You can go anywhere and use it.

Yeah. That’s one thing that is really attractive about the career to a lot of people. I have a colleague – he interpreted on cruise ships.

One part of our internship is students going and doing observation hours at a local video relay call center. So, deaf people who want to make a phone call can do so through the relay company and their phone call is interpreted. So, that is a really fun thing to see.  [Along] with a variety of phone calls interpreters interpret.

Great! So outside of those courses, what are some other programs or projects you do? I know there are some nights the students will go out and eat somewhere. What are some examples of those?

Yeah, so our department has an ASL club. They host ASL social events – they’re open to the community and invite the deaf community to come in and it’s a really sweet time for people to connect and an opportunity for beginning signers to be in a safe place where they can practice and it’s okay to make mistakes.

It’s kind of that forgiving comfortable environment to just learn.

We have to, to communicate. I mean, think about language acquisition as it happens naturally with children. They make tons of mistakes, and as second-language learners, we do the same thing.

So, the ASL club is an awesome place for students to grow and to start flourishing in a second language.

Then, there are lots of community events. We host an interpreting lecture series and that is designed for community interpreters who are already certified and working to come to TCC. We have a lot of students come back for that – to get that professional development and to get specialized training. And then our students can meet and network with working professionals. So that’s a really fun event.


Another fun thing coming up is in May, my colleague Glenna Cooper is going to lead an international trip and students are going to use American Sign Language in France – and they’ll go to Paris.

That’s great! I have actually talked with Dr. Price who runs Global Learning, and he said the trips that he probably learned the most about was one of those trips.

Awesome. She has done several.

Yeah, it’s great. I also saw she had done the TED talk last year or the year before, which is really great.

There are plenty of opportunities.

Yeah.

So, beyond your classes, what are some other things you are hoping to see in Tulsa, as far as the interpreting community, like growing [or] more services? Do you see places we can use more interpreters?

Absolutely, we need more interpreters in Tulsa, specifically. Which is great news for students interested in studying interpreting – the job market is ready for them. I am told that there are interpreting assignments left unfilled daily, right now in Tulsa, which means members of our community not having access they should have. There’s a need for sure.

Right here – so it’s as easy as you do the classes, you get certified, and then your job could be right down the street. It’s right here.

[Hums in agreement] And there’s lots of opportunities for part-time work full time work. There are options.


People need interpreting all times of the day. All days of the week.


All times of the night! There you go.

Beyond classes, you do have service learning. What is service learning for interpreters?

Excellent. We actually [backing up] have it embedded in some of our courses, some of its not. But, service learning is a high-impact learning practice and is shown (it’s used throughout the college – different disciplines are using it) to support true learning and transformational learning. So, we look for places where our students can truly contribute to the community while at the same time mastering their course learning outcomes.

Right now, I have students doing a translation project with a local agency. But, it looks different ever semester depending on what needs are.

One of the beautiful parts about it, for interpreting specifically, is having [them] doing a service learning project, I can provide my students with an actual audience for their work. And, they share how much it increases their motivation to have a true audience. It’s now instead of being a classroom exercise, which is important, it’s now an authentic interpreting assignment, or translation assignment, where, like I said, they have a real audience. That’s important for interpreting because we’re always making decisions about what things mean and without things being in context, we have to do a lot of inference to figure out what they mean.

Because you can’t always do research – a lot of it is on the spot in the moment.

If the same sentence is said in a persuasive way, in a business meeting [versus] an information way in a classroom, it would be interpreted very, very differently. So, it [service learning] is awesome because it is a win-win for everyone. It is a win for the community [and] is a win for the students.

More than just interpreting, or translating, what is being said, it is also very much reading the reception of the audience? (i.e. read the room, seeing/observing how the message is being perceived.)

Yeah. So, if I am interpreting and either of the consumers I am working with have a puzzled expression on their face – I can recognize, ‘Oh! Maybe communication isn’t being transferred here’ and I can make adjustment to how I am interpreting.

See if it is the way you interpreted it, or just the way it was originally phrased…

And if someone is nodding along and indicating they’ve got it, then I know we’re good! We can move on.

If someone maybe took ASL a while ago and want to get their certification for interpreting, TCC would be a great chance for them to develop those skills again, and relearn some things they may have forgotten.

For sure! We have a lot of students who have that same exact story – who come back to us for fine-tuning, or just refreshing their skills.

To actually get that certification to say, ‘I can actually do this in an official capacity.’

Just to remind everybody, the whole program of ASLE, is: ASL Studies, Deaf Education, Services to the Deaf, and Interpreter Education.

So, if they want to find out more info about the program or specifically about Interpreting, what is the best way for them to go about doing that?

We have one email address and anyone who emails that address will go to all of the full-time faculty in that department and whoever can best field the question hops on and answers. So, that is ASLE@tulsacc.edu

That makes it easy, doesn’t it?

Yes!

Is there a specific campus that either the you or the program is based at?

My office is at Northeast Campus, but we have ASL I on all campuses and then ASL II, students can take at either Southeast or Northeast. Anything beyond that {ASL III/IV) will be at Northeast.

That Deaf Culture and History class I mentioned is also offered online.

Great! So, there are opportunities no matter where you are at.

And students who aren’t taking a major with us, can take that class. I don’t know what that would fit, for everyone’s degree map, you would have to meet with your academic counselor, but we have had a lot of students from other disciplines take it for a controlled elective.

Another skill that can only be helpful. It can’t hurt, only help.

And that class you don’t need to know ASL to be in that class.

Make sure you check out the classes!