Last spring, a man entered the People’s Community Health Center in Glen Burnie, Md., after falling off a horse. Not only was he having seizures, he was also having difficulties telling the clinic’s physician about his medical problems. He didn’t speak English. The doctor didn’t speak Spanish.
Fortunately, a TU Spanish major was on hand, making sure there was no failure to communicate.
“I used my Spanish in a practical way,” says Summer Austria, a TU senior who is also majoring in business. “I was really nervous, but with my help and the help of his friend who spoke a little English, [the patient] was able to express what was wrong.”
Austria and other TU students have been taking their Spanish out of the classroom and into the community for three years, translating and interpreting in legal, health care, advocacy and other organizations. It’s all part of a service-learning course, Spanish 409 “Translation,” developed by Colleen Ebacher, TU associate professor in the foreign languages department.
The class gives students an opportunity to not only listen to and speak Spanish, but also to connect with the local Hispanic community, Ebacher explains.
“Whether translating health and legal documents or interpreting at clinics, students take the grammar and vocabulary they learn in class and use it in real life,” she says. “Students become engaged with other cultures and begin to understand their issues and concerns.”
Found in Translation
Ebacher, who joined Towson in 1995, had long sought a practical way to enrich the learning experience of students majoring in Spanish. While classes in Spanish literature or film added a cultural flavor, something was missing from the language-learning experience.
Even a translation class, which required students to submit a five- to 10-page translated document, failed to fill the gap.
“I can take a one-minute walk outside my building and use my Spanish,” Ebacher says. “I automatically assumed my students would be doing the same. Most were not.”
Whether reticent or just unaware, Ebacher knew her students had language talents that were being wasted. That changed in 2009 when Ebacher pursued a service-learning faculty fellowship through TU’s Office of Civic Engagement, which would integrate service learning into the translation class and make learning a language come alive.
“This is far different from community service where a student volunteer is helpful but doesn’t necessarily learn in the content area,” Ebacher explains. “In service learning, students must increase their language skills and proficiency while making a commitment to benefit an agency or organization.”
The fellowship provided Ebacher with access to other professors who had established similar courses, and a how-to on selecting agencies to work with, as well as setting up, assessing and monitoring students who would take the class.
Now Ebacher wasn’t just teaching Spanish, she was connecting her students to the growing Hispanic population in Maryland with dramatic results.
“I just wanted to tell you I had a chance to speak with the manager of the clinic where the students are placed and they are doing great,” Dee Davis ’78, a recruiter at People’s Community Health Center, wrote in an email. “They have made a difference and the patients love them.
“We feel very fortunate to have them.”
In addition to the health clinic, students have worked at Casa de Maryland, Esperanza Center and the Baltimore County Department of Aging on everything from interpreting to helping clients complete paperwork to translating legal and medical brochures into Spanish. At the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office, for example, they translated flyers on H1N1 flu.
Even Towson University’s marketing department and food service made use of their skills.
“Ten percent of our workforce speaks Spanish,” says John Brady, director of operations for TU’s Dining Services, who called on Spanish majors to translate a number of manuals and brochures on food, environmental and worker safety for employees of Chartwells.
Brady also uses student interpreters during question-and-answer sessions designed to open the lines of communication between management and staff and to let employees know how much they were appreciated.
“While the students get real-world experience, we get a valuable service,” says Brady. “By using an interpreter and having back-and-forth conversations, our Spanish-speaking associates can see we are making an effort to connect to them and their needs.”
‘A Very Practical Course’
Some 60 students have participated in the service-learning class since its inception in 2010, providing approximately 1,500 hours in interpretation and translation services to the community.
But before any student turns Spanish into English and vice versa, Ebacher must do her homework. She rates the Spanish abilities of each student using a proficiency test so that students are placed in positions appropriate to their Spanish levels.
For example, some students may speak so well that they can interpret directly for a doctor or food service workers during a live session with Chartwells. Intermediate speakers may be better suited for conversing in reception areas or helping people fill out forms.
Whatever their task, Ebacher visits the agencies to ensure that students will find academic rigor in the experience and not just be somewhere “filing papers.”
“We want students to accomplish the five Cs of language learning—communication, cultures, connections, comparisons and community,” she says.
“This is accomplished through a very practical course,” Ebacher adds, “but one that also demands commitment.”
Before designated as an interpreter for People’s, for example, students must undergo a background check, drug testing and a three-hour orientation.
“They don’t receive credit for service hours. They receive credit for learning,” she says.
Ebacher, too, puts in additional time. “The translation process is a lot of work for me. I can’t send a document that would get a “C” into the community. Every document must be of publishable quality and, at times, that requires me to push a student through multiple rounds of revisions.”
The rewards, however, outweigh any headaches. Some former students have used the experience to land jobs. Others are in graduate school working on master’s or Ph.D. degrees in Spanish translation.
The common denominator for all of them is a desire to stay engaged with the Hispanic community.
Ebacher recalls students who have volunteered to interpret for Chartwells, not because they are missing required hours, but because they “want to do more.”
Others become so involved, they perform well beyond expectations, including one student who was supposed to interpret before a patient had surgery but stayed for hours in the waiting room. “He just couldn’t leave the patient,” Ebacher says, “but needed a note from me because he’d missed another class.”
Reflection essays about their experiences, another class requirement, echo this type of dedication. One first-generation Spanish student wrote, “The community—no—my community needs me. I’m very bilingual and had never done service. I can offer this. It is so easy and inexpensive.”
Austria, the student at People’s, brought her Spanish skills to several organizations during the semester. She experienced a new role for herself, one which challenged her to “stop thinking about her Spanish, and to listen and use it. That’s when I became more comfortable speaking Spanish,” she notes.
Perhaps more important, Austria came to understand the significance of helping those who need it. She says, “Through interpreting, I could give people knowledge, and knowledge gives power.”
This story originally appeared in Towson magazine.
By Ginny Cook. Photos by Kanji Takeno and Desiree Stover.