Officially, one of South Texas College’s newest programs is known as the Interpreter Training Program or ITP. Unofficially, it’s “Robert’s baby.”

Eight years ago, STC World Languages Instructor Robert Cantu decided to conduct research on ITPs. Along the way, he hit a roadblock because he could not find documentation that clearly defined program demand. Though he set his “baby” aside, he never considered giving up. Last year, Cantu and others collected the data they needed, and the extensive program development process officially began.

After gathering all of the required documentation, several college committees, the STC Board of Trustees and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had to give their approval. A lengthy program notebook containing countless documents had to be submitted to the college prior to seeking the state’s final approval. Finally, Cantu had to form an advisory committee composed of local individuals involved in the fields of American Sign Language, interpreting or Deaf services. This committee helped design the ITP curriculum.

As Cantu gathered the required data, he became more and more certain that an ITP in the Valley was long overdue.

“The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services) estimates that the Rio Grande Valley has approximately 8,000 Deaf people, 6,000 of which use sign language as their primary mode of communication,” Cantu said. “At the same time, the Valley has approximately 44 certified interpreters, and 34 of them hold entry level certification.” Cantu could not imagine how 44 interpreters could possibly serve the medical, legal, educational and employment needs of 6,000 Deaf people.

Additionally, Cantu discovered that federal and state laws require agencies, organizations and municipalities to provide qualified and/or certified interpreters for their Deaf clients/citizens. These laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act and Texas civil and criminal codes.

The icing on the cake came from the 2008-2009 edition of Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the United States Department of Labor. Department findings estimate that the employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase 24 percent over the 2006-16 decade, much faster than the average for all occupations.

When Cantu presented his findings to STC president Dr. Shirley Reed, she knew the college had to move forward.

“We reviewed the research, and the evidence of demand was startling,” Reed said. “Obviously we felt immediate action was needed to open up a pathway to train more interpreters to ensure our community has access to services they need. This is about more than just making a new career training program available. In the long run, we are offering a community service. By training more interpreters, we are making assistive services available to students of every age.”

STC’s ITP is the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. In the past, Valley residents interested in pursuing a career in interpreting had no choice but to go to Corpus Christi or San Antonio. Now, full-time students will be able to complete the ITP within two years.

Program graduates will earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in American Sign Language and Interpreter Studies. Within the program, there are two specializations: Sign Language Interpreter and Deaf Support Specialist. The first requires 72 hours of coursework. Students must pass a mid-program evaluation. At the end of their course of study, they must take the state’s certification exam and a program exit exam. Students are expected to maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Upon completion of all course requirements, these students will be prepared to become interpreters in the community.

The Deaf Support Specialist candidates will also complete 72 semester hours of coursework, pass a mid-program evaluation and a program exit exam and maintain a 2.5 GPA. Graduates with this specialization are those who wish to seek employment as an advocate, job coach, mentor or paraprofessional working with Deaf consumers. Successful completion of all coursework will ensure the graduates are knowledgeable of linguistic and cultural aspects of the Deaf community and are proficient in American Sign Language.

As an added bonus, STC’s ITP will offer an Enhanced Skills Certificate in Trilingual Interpreting. This program will serve ITP students who wish to utilize their skills in English, Spanish and ASL. Students pursuing this certificate must successfully complete an ITP or already have their interpreter certification.

Individuals interested in the program who do not know ASL need not be deterred.

“Our program does not require students to already know ASL,” Cantu said. “However, our program will require a mid-program evaluation to check for ASL fluency and proficiency.”

August 28, Cantu and the lead instructor for the ITP, Jovonne Delgado, held a Meet and Greet Orientation at STC’s Cooper Center to introduce the program’s first cohort. After interviewing approximately 200 candidates, 78 students were selected and 27 more have been placed on a waiting list.

Cantu began the evening with a heartfelt explanation of how his “baby” had finally materialized. Though Cantu has no deaf relatives and does not know sign, he feels strongly about the need for the program.

“I believe the Deaf community deserves equal access to communication,” he said.

During the Meet and Greet, Cantu offered special thanks to Pat Zenor, deputy director for administration at Valley Association for Independent Living (VAIL) in McAllen. Zenor played a vital role in gathering data and demonstrating the critical need for an ITP in the Valley.

Many others deserve special thanks, as well, including STC’s Dr. Margaretha Bischoff, Dean for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Elisa Pastor, chair of the World Languages Department, Laura Talbot, Curriculum and Accreditation Officer, Dr. Reed and the advisory council. McAllen attorney Morgan Talbot, who was appointed to the Texas Independent Living Council by Gov. Rick Perry, was a strong program advocate.

Perspective employers of the ITP graduates were on hand at the Meet and Greet, including McAllen ISD’s Regional School for the Deaf, VAIL, UTPA’s and STC’s interpreting services coordinators, Sorenson Communications and Hidalgo and Cameron County Emergency Management representatives.

Cari Lambrecht, Hidalgo County public information officer, has already teamed up with Delgado, the ITP lead instructor, to sign hurricane preparedness messages that will air on local television stations. Delgado appears in a box on the screen as the words are spoken.

Sorenson Communications, the leading provider of Video Relay Service (VRS), has opened a call center in McAllen. VRS allows Deaf people to use high-speed Internet and a computer or high-speed cable and a videophone to place telephone calls. When Deaf people call an individual who cannot sign, or a business, they do so using a VRS provider. A skilled sign language interpreter appears on the screen, reading the Deaf person’s signs and voicing to the person on the other end. As the hearing person responds, the VRS interpreter signs their words to the Deaf person.

Sorenson’s Director of Public Relations, Ann Bardsley, expressed the company’s support of STC’s ITP.

“Sorenson Communications is committed to addressing the shortage of sign language interpreters and to improving the quality of sign language interpreters for Sorenson and for the community at large,” Bardsley said. “As the leading provider of VRS, Sorenson Communications encourages IEPs (Interpreter Education Programs) to base educational programming on measurable outcomes and service-based learning so interpreters are well-prepared for the rigors of community and VRS interpreting work.”

Cantu’s “baby” has officially been born, and many people are celebrating. In two years, the first STC ITP graduates will be serving Deaf members of our community, providing the equal access that has been out of reach for far too long.