When professors and interpreters came together six years ago to establish a translation and interpretation program at the University of Arizona, Amanda Campos was exactly the kind of student they had in mind.
The program aims to train the next generation of highly skilled translators and interpreters, especially those able to draw on their heritage language and culture to serve in fields that include law, medicine, business and education.
"They have very high expectations for us, which is what helped me to be productive on the job," said Campos, a native Spanish speaker who graduated from the UA translation and interpretation program, known as T&I, in 2010.
"In the program, I was taught to treat everyone with equality and respect," said Campos, now an interpreter for pretrial services, a division of the Arizona Superior Court. "No matter what a person's language ability or socioeconomic status, this is about giving people equal opportunities."
Deeply rooted in academic training but with a strong practical component, the program has seen sustained growth in its five years while moving UA graduates like Campos into positions with local and state courts, private companies and schools, among other areas.
Most recently, T&I has worked with its longstanding partner, Tucson Medical Center, to offer T&I interns a stipend for their linguistic training at the hospital. The UA program also has developed partnerships for numerous other internship and practicum experiences, both on and off campus.
And enrollment has jumped from 35 to nearly 170 students, placing T&I among the largest accredited programs of its type in the nation.
"We need to pay more attention to this," said Jaime Fatás-Cabeza, the program's director and a federally certified interpreter.
"The program has grown; the students are seeing the value in it," Fatás-Cabeza said, also underscoring the statewide and nationwide demand for more qualified translators and interpreters.
"If we really want to work together on issues on a global level, we have to have cross cultural communication and a way to allow stakeholders to speak on an equal basis," said Fatás-Cabeza, also an assistant professor of practice in the UA Spanish and Portuguese department. "This is a fundamental role, and a linguistic and cultural asset."
Other tangible benefits exist.
The impetus for the T&I was the "Professional Language Development Project," which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, or FIPSE.
The program was offered 1999-2002 during the summer, involving talented bilingual high school students for intensive training in English and Spanish translation and interpretation. The National Center for Interpretation, Testing, Research and Policy at the UA, or NCI, has since implemented the language training program in several Tucson-area high schools.
Students involved in the initial program exhibited remarkable academic and cognitive results: stronger academic performance in writing, reading and language proficiency, and increased GPAs after their involvement, especially when compared with peers who did not participate, said Roseann Dueñas-Gonzalez, the director of NCI.
The students also had greater graduation rates and were more likely to pursue a college or university education, Dueñas-Gonzalez added.
"Their heritage and culture are often viewed as a deficit, but making them understand that their cultural and linguistic skills were valuable and that they could develop them at a rigorous level – that was my goal," said Dueñas-Gonzalez.
Armed with this data, along with nationwide evidence pointing to the need to professionalize a language service workforce to aid limited and non-English speakers, Dueñas-Gonzalez developed the curriculum and materials for the UA T&I program through a second grant from FIPSE. She then recruited Fatás-Cabeza to implement the curriculum.
"It has been very heartening to me that we were able to get the Department of Education to see the need to create programs that not only meet a societal need, but that include traditionally underrepresented minority populations, including Latinos," said Dueñas-Gonzalez, a UA English professor who also directs the Agnese Haury Institute for Legal Interpretation.
Students in the T&I program receive comprehensive simultaneous and consecutive training in areas that include medical, legal and business translation and interpretation.
As part of their training and experiential learning, students also offer translation and interpretation services to courts, hospitals, nonprofits, newspapers and several UA colleges and departments.
"I tell my students that the program offers everything that a person needs who wants to be the crème de la crème," said Erin Vinton, a 2009 graduate of the program who is now serving as one of its adjunct faculty members.
For instance, students in Vinton's legal and business translation course speak in both English and Spanish, learning about the legal system, criminal procedure and pertinent terminology in both languages. They also must be quite adept at converting words into meaning that is relevant culturally and with regard to context.
If not, the consequences are dire, she noted.
Some of the stories driving the work of those in the program are deeply concerning: domestic violence victims unable to communicate with police officers, people arrested for criminal offenses not able to understand judges, also, emergency room patients, physicians and nurses unable to understand each other.
Thus, the coursework is rigorous, requiring that students in the program be independent and devoted to in-depth understanding of the field.
"I still use the CDs and documents I accumulated throughout my time in the program," Vinton said. "There is so much information that we can continue to glean after graduating."
That was a huge draw for Anders Peterson, who shares a story with many bilingual individuals.
Having been raised in a Spanish-speaking household, Peterson was the one tugged at the arm to translate and interpret for family and friends.
"There are several ad hoc, self-appointed interpreters and translators who never acquire those skills," said Peterson, a 2008 graduate of the program now working toward his master's degree in the Spanish and Portuguese department with a focus in Hispanic linguistics.
For him, the basic level involvement began around his pre-teen years, when his mother – who was the Parent Teacher Association president at his school – enlisted his support to translate for Spanish-speaking families, or when he would help friends buy medicine or get dental care while in Mexico.
"I just used my skills, but there are various degrees of proficiency," Peterson said, emphasizing the importance of the methods, techniques and professionalism the program teaches. "When I realized it was something that really interested me, it made logical sense that I should study more and acquire other skills."