Uncertain future of ASL interpreting program draws concern from alumni

Although rumors of the ASL interpreting program closing were deemed false, the future of the program is still uncertain. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

An unclear future of the American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting Training Program (ITP) has prompted many students, alumni and community members to advocate the importance of USF’s program for the deaf and hard of hearing community in Tampa.

No official announcement was made by the university about the major being closed, but claims spread quickly across social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

College of Behavioral and Community Sciences (CBCS) Dean Julianne Serovich said in a statement Wednesday that the college was simply planning to recommend discontinuing the program, but no decision has been made nor has a proposal been submitted to the university as of yet.

“USF recognizes there is a need in the community for certified interpreters, and the university remains committed to offering training that prepares students for this field,” she said. 

“The College of Behavioral and Community Sciences plans to work with partners within the university and across the Tampa Bay region to develop an innovative approach to expand the number of certified American Sign Language interpreters who serve our community.”

The earliest correspondence regarding the possible closure of the program derived from a Feb. 11 email to faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) from Interim Chair of CSD Nathan Maxfield. Serovich said in her statement that this communication in CBCS was inaccurate.

He stated the decision to close the ASL ITP was based on many factors, which were not specified. Maxfield and ITP Coordinator Andrea Smith were made aware of the decision Feb. 10, according to the email. Who told them was not known by the time of publication.

The department would phase out the program through a three-year teach out, according to Maxfield. Students currently in the program would be able to complete their degree, but afterward, degrees in interpreter training would no longer be offered to students.

Shortly after Maxfield’s email, ITP alum Sarah Serralta was informed of the claim and made a Facebook post Monday night stating a university decision had been made to close the program. She asked people to reach out to administration with their concerns.

Serralta said Smith confirmed the claims on Monday in the comments of her Facebook post.

The news quickly spread across social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. Junior ASL ITP student Paige Cooley created a petition Tuesday which has over 9,300 signatures as of Thursday morning.

“This decision will stop incoming students with a passion for ASL and deaf studies from pursuing a degree that will better our society,” she said. 

“There are three million people who experience hearing loss in the state of Florida alone, terminating this major will in time make it harder for the deaf and hard of hearing community to obtain quality interpreting services due to severe interpreter deficit.”

In the Tampa Bay area, there are about 340,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to Serralta. However, there are not enough interpreters for everyone, so she said some must work overtime to provide services to those that need it. 

Deaf studies alum Kelvin Joel, who is deaf, signed — interpreted by Serralta — that he believes administration knows the decision is not a good look for USF and they are trying to simplify a complex degree which could harm the deaf community.

“[USF has] a stellar reputation they don’t want tarnished, but at this point, they’re showing their real colors,” he said. “What they’re trying to do is change the program to become a certification program. You take ASL I, II and III, boom, you’re certified with sign language skills. But there is a lot of information and curriculum.”

As many students and alumni reached out to administration, Serovich addressed their concerns in “copy and paste” emails, according to USF alum Emma Sills. 

“Administration, in their generic copy-paste emails, is saying that they’re just trying to focus more on ASL classes and it seems like they just want to expand and only teach ASL I and II, which is simply not going to meet the need of interpreters at all,” Sills said. 

“It seems … the administration has no understanding of the field. They believe that learning the language is the same thing as interpreting it.”

USF alum Nicky Macias, along with other alumni, provided The Oracle with their email exchanges with Serovich from this week. In the email, Serovich thanked Macias for reaching out and reassured “ASL is not going away.”

“I have directed my Associate Dean for Academics to explore even more ways to offer ASL training to interested students,” Serovich said. “We want to expand our ability to train. … The community needs professional interpreters and we are a perfect place to train them.” 

However, she stated USF’s ability to offer ASL as a major will be changing moving forward, citing that having a degree is not required to become a professional interpreter and there are other institutions in the Tampa area that offer the major.

Serralta, who is certified and is a practicing community interpreter, said a bachelor’s degree is needed to sit for the certification exam, which is required by many sign language interpreting agencies.

Two universities in Florida offer four-year ASL interpretation programs — USF and UNF. However, USF is the only one with an in-person program, according to Joel.

USF was the closest school with the program to Serralta, but she said it was also well-spoken of and had a good reputation of being thorough, which is why she chose to study at USF.

“There’s a lot of hands-on training that the interpreting program provides for us so that we are able to go out in the community and replicate that which we’ve learned in the real world,” she said. 

“I think that that’s why this program, it’s just instrumental in developing the local interpreting community. I can’t imagine the area without it.”

Despite the program’s small size, Sills said the cohort structure makes it a more effective and supportive learning environment. She graduated with seven other students in the program, and six of the total eight are actively working as interpreters, she said.

“USF I think does a fantastic job of making sure that the students who graduate truly want it and deserve to be there,” Sills said. “That’s again, something that I think makes USF really unique, is that I feel that everyone I graduated with deserves that degree and really wanted and worked for it.”

Serralta and Sills both work in the field, interpreting a variety of situations such as K-12 classes, medical appointments, meetings, interviews and job trainings.

“All of those things we learned to do while we’re in school,” Serralta said. “The interpreter training program does have sign language classes, but on top of that, it teaches you how to be a skilled interpreter, how to accurately interpret information and to sign language.

“In turn, we are able to go out in the community, get the credentials that we need and then work accordingly to provide interpreting services wherever deaf and hard of hearing people need them.” 

There is more to interpreting than knowing the language, according to Joel. Interpreters need to receive training in different timing styles and modalities of communication to be able to assist deaf people in all day-to-day situations.

“To certify somebody’s signing skills for ASL, that’s incredibly superficial as to what needs to happen,” he said. “Somebody that takes a couple of classes and gets certified and then they go to pursue a career and get a job. I mean, you could hurt somebody, you could really hurt somebody. 

“It’s oppressive to the community. … This will provide no language access for us. It’s showing us that they’re not really being active partners to the deaf community at this point.”

The suddenness of the announcement made some alumni such as Joel confused and frustrated about what it would mean for the deaf community in the future. 

“I graduated from there. I spent my own money to go to college there. And I use an interpreter from USF,” Joel said. “I felt so welcome while I was in school. And now to see that, I felt rejected. Like nobody was supporting us in our community, the place that I graduated from. 

“It felt a little oppressive. And I was offended because that’s the language we use. We, the deaf community, invented this language and we need interpreters. And we’re starting to grow all over. And we depend on those resources and now [USF is] cutting the line. Where’d that come from?” 

To be able to access basic services, participate in the community and communicate with others, deaf and hard of hearing people need interpreters, according to Joel. Taking away the programs which teach those skills will not only impact future interpreters, but the access the community has to communication. 

“USF needs to support communication access, and they’re taking away our language access, our sign language using and interpreters,” Joel said. “To create a richer experience and show good language facilitation, we depend on that experience.”