Students advocate for ASL interpreter training program, voice concerns to dean

The four-and-a-half hour protest involved debates between College of Behavioral and Community Sciences Dean Julianne Serovich and students sharing their experiences from the program and concerns about its future. ORACLE PHOTO/MYA BEAUVAIS

An organized protest in front of the Marshall Student Center (MSC) saw tensions and emotions run high as students shared their reasons as to why they want to see the American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting Training Program (ITP) remain classified as a major and expand.

Over 150 people attended the gathering, including students and faculty in the program as well as numerous interpreters, many of whom were USF alumni. College of Behavioral and Community Sciences (CBCS) Dean Julianne Serovich was also present with Associate Dean of CBCS Jennifer Lister to answer questions and concerns from the crowd of students.

The protest was scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Thursday, but high-tension debates with Serovich lasted until just after 8:30 p.m. Throughout the time, students asked questions about why the program was changing and what USF was going to do to advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing communities.

After rumors initially swirled surrounding the closure of the ASL ITP as a whole, this claim was proved to be false Wednesday by Serovich. However, the program is still facing potential changes as the dean sent a recommendation to Provost Ralph Wilcox to revert the major back to a concentration, as it was classified until 2020.

Serovich said this was due to an error when transferring it as a concentration to a major, as it was not assigned a new CIP code which it is required to have.

Communications sciences and disorders alum Katryna Arias said that human error was not valid enough reasoning to take away the major, as it would be easier to invest in hiring research faculty than eliminating the major.

“To make [ASL ITP] its own major was a huge feat for the deaf community,” she said. “We are finally recognized as interpreters. I’m not a communication assistant, I’m not a disability assistant. I’m an interpreter by degree.

“That’s what we’ve done with our time here at USF, and now you’re trying to backtrack on that. Even if the program stays the same, you want to make it a concentration again and remove us from our own separate entity.”

A reason Serovich cited for reclassifying the program was it is not producing enough students. She said her plan was to grow the program, but students argued from the crowd that the program was not given enough resources to have the chance of producing more students.

A major point students and alumni consistently repeated was the university had not included deaf or hard of hearing people in the decision-making process.

President of the Florida Association of the Deaf James Scott signed that it was unacceptable these decisions were being made without the input of the deaf or hard of hearing communities, and he would like to sit down with USF leadership to discuss the topic.

“You should’ve discussed with the deaf community, you are excluding us,” he said. “It is important that you include deaf people in the process.”

However, Serovich emphasized she wants to involve everyone in the USF community to have this discussion with them.

“When we put this together, I told the number of people that are working on it that I want somebody from the deaf community to be involved, and I want students to be involved, because maybe there’s something in this that we’re doing that just isn’t appealing,” she said.

Many students from the crowd also pointed out that qualified interpreters are in low supply at USF, citing that the Serovich’s own town halls on diversity and inclusion didn’t include interpreters.

Scott stressed the importance of including interpreters in all communicative events, as he said ASL is its own language with its own grammar and expressions, not a division of the English language.

“Deafness does not rely on English captioning,” he said. “That is not our primary language. ASL is our primary language.”

USF alum Jessica Cogswell emerged from the crowd at one point in the discussion, reminding Serovich she was her former staff interpreter.

Cogswell expressed her dissatisfaction with the current lack of care given to their program, and said the people in charge need to understand their viewpoints, not from a financial standing but rather an empathetic one.

“There has always been a disconnect between our program and the college,” she said. “Time and time again, I hear ‘This isn’t producing enough revenue.’ That is not what the educational system was built for. It’s what it is now … but that is not what this community needs.

“We need people who have hearts and care and see that our people that we love have been oppressed for decades. USF has turned out the best interpreters … Your program allowed me to interpret for former presidents and for astrophysicists. I did not learn that in ASL I and II.”

The audience stressed the importance of having highly trained interpreters as some recounted moments where unqualified interpreters negatively affected their academic or social experiences.

Joel said his academic performances were highly affected by the quality of the interpreters present, and stated that his experiences at USF caused him to fall behind in some of his classes.

“I was in public school for 11 years, and I had so many bad experiences because the interpreter was not a qualified interpreter. They were a signer,” he said.

“And then I went to a deaf school, and I got the highest grade possible, a 3.2 GPA. But [at USF], I had a 2.0. That’s not a reflection on me. That’s a reflection on the quality of interpreting programs that we have, and if we don’t have access to the best quality that we have, this is on [Serovich’s] shoulders forever.”

Following almost two hours of back-and-forth discussions between the crowd and Serovich, Media Relations Manager Kevin Watler encouraged students to ask questions one at a time in order to allow the dean to provide answers in a calmer environment.

Arias instructed everyone who wanted to speak with the dean to form a line. From this point on, the discussion eased in tension, as students shared personal stories, concerns and opinions directly to Serovich.

Cassie Burton, a USF alum, discussed her experiences as a CODA, or a child of deaf adults. She told Serovich how ASL ITP improved her interpreting skills immensely, and taught her the importance of expressions when signing.

“This program taught me so much … I FaceTimed my mom one day, and she said ‘Whoa, you are being way too expressive,’” Burton said.

She explained how her experience signing to her parents did not make her a qualified interpreter. Instead, she gave credit to the program at USF. The university wouldn’t have the same level of quality interpreters it has now if it is not offered as a major anymore, according to Burton.

Serovich’s absence in ASL events made it difficult for senior and social work student Simone Till, who is hard of hearing, to reason with her, given her lack of experience working with the community.

“We’re actually under the same college as I’m a social work student, but I have never seen her face,” she said. “I thought it was funny, I did not know that she was my dean at all.”

After the event ended, Serovich said she was proud of students for making their voices heard and teaching her a lot of new things about the experiences of the deaf and hard of hearing communities.

“I am terribly proud of our student advocates. I think this is something that is incredibly important, and I’m glad that we’re here tonight,” she said. “I always knew the scope of the impact, but to the degree that they talked about tonight was really important and very impressive to me.

“[They are] very well spoken, very articulate and they know their material. They have a real life understanding, and I really value that.”

At about 8:30 p.m., Joel and Arias handed Serovich and Lister a piece of notebook paper with the words ‘No changes or action will be taken until we meet again’ written on it. Both deans signed the paper, agreeing to the written statement.

Emphasizing this is not a one-day protest, Joel said it is the beginning of an ongoing advocacy movement.

“We are trying to find out what’s going on,” he said. “If we are not going to get the truth today, that means the protest is not over.”

Additional reporting by Gabriela Menez Chahade.