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How My High School Foreign Language Credit, Became My Career as a Sign Language Interpreter

Jan 11, 2021 | Interpreter Education

by: Melanie Blair Frye EIPA 4.1 - NIR Interpreter Coordinator

“Do you have Deaf family? How did you learn ASL?”

These are the two most common questions I get when walking into an assignment with a Deaf client that I have never interpreted for previously.

My answer to the first question is no. My answer to the second question is a much more fun explanation.

My journey to becoming an ASL Interpreter started back in the 2002-2003 school year at Wellington Landings Middle School. I was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. My middle school had an interpreter on staff for a Deaf student there at the time, and she set up an ASL Club that year meeting after school. And what 7th grade kid wants to go home after school when you can join a fun club with your friends?! So, I went. Little did I know that that decision would change the course of my life … FOREVER!

Fast forward to nearing the end of 8th grade, when it was time to choose classes for high school, needing a foreign language for at least two years for college, I scanned the list of choices at Wellington High School.
Latin … BORING!

Spanish … No.

French … No.

German … No.

American Sign Language … YES!!
My first two years in the ASL program went by in a blur of opportunities to learn more and grow. We did an event with students from Florida School for the Deaf and Blind to meet Deaf students our age, some of whom I am friends with to this day. We did two shows a year to music all in ASL of which I participated in both every year. I got to volunteer for the Together with Pride Foundation Whiffle Ball Tournament hosted by Deaf baseball player, Curtis Pride, and little did I know that relationship with Curtis would not only gain me a great friend in Curtis but also a scholarship for my first year of college.

After completion of my two-year foreign language requirement, I couldn’t imagine my life without ASL in it. It was around that time that I gave up my dreams of one day becoming a doctor and changed my whole focus on opportunities with the Deaf Community. Entering into my junior year of high school and ASL 3, I was slated to be the Vice President of the ASL Club and an inductee to the ASL Honor Society. I landed one of the lead roles in the ASL shows that year, continued going to Deaf events such as Deaf Expo, and volunteering with Together with Pride. It was that year that I focused on which avenues I could take to make my passion for ASL something I could do forever.
I found two options: Deaf Education or Interpreting.
After doing research on both professions, I found that interpreting would allow me to be involved in so many different fields – K-12, post-secondary, medical, performing arts, and legal to name a few. I knew interpreting would be the route for me because I love a changing environment.

Knowing I wanted to stay in Florida for college and go to a 4-year University helped narrow down my choices for college that had Interpreter Training Programs (or ITP’s, which are now known as Interpreter Education Programs). My choices were University of South Florida in Tampa or University of North Florida in Jacksonville. My decision was made easy when another top requirement for me was a university with a football team … priorities, right?! University of South Florida it was!

With my sights set on USF, I entered my senior year of high school, ASL 4, getting ready to be the President of the ASL Club and Honor Society. I was a lead role in the ASL shows again that year as well. USF was the only school I applied to. Nothing like putting all your eggs in one basket! I applied on 9/30/2008 and my acceptance letter was dated 10/8/2008! I WAS IN! I WAS GOING TO BE AN INTERPRETER!

But, before I could get to USF, I had a few more things I wanted to accomplish as a high school ASL student … something an ASL Student in Palm Beach County had never accomplished before, and now will never accomplish again. We have a scholarship program here called The Pathfinder Scholarship, it has 18 different categories, and each school nominated one student for each category who then goes on to compete against every nominee from the district. No one from an ASL program had ever been nominated in the foreign language category, but I wasn’t going to let that hold me back from trying, so I applied. I won Wellington’s nominee. Then it was on to the interview at the district level and the big awards night held at the Kravis Center. I was so nervous that night, knowing no ASL student had ever won, but feeling confident knowing I had what they were looking for: a dedication to a profession in the language I represented. The night went on category by category, and then finally foreign language. Fourth place … not me. Third place … not me. Second place … OH MY GOSH!!! THAT’S ME!!! I had won second place out of the whole district as the first nominee to ever come from an ASL program! It was such a win for ASL students everywhere. Unfortunately, after my big win, they have now suspended ASL students from being nominated due to not having an accurate judge of the language on their panel.

With the love and dedication from my ASL teacher of all four years at Wellington, Holly Unser, I dove in as hard as I could to be ready to become an interpreter. Upon my arrival at USF, I tested directly into college level ASL 3, which was full, so I went ahead and took ASL 2 to keep my skills fresh. The four-year ITP at USF is second to none with the most incredible professors who truly prepared us all to graduate and be able to work. I had so many incredible experiences at USF, one of which was being a Green and Gold Guide, campus tour guide, and giving tours in ASL for prospective Deaf students coming to campus. I graduated in four years in May 2012, Magna Cum Laude, I had passed my NIC written exam, and had a QA 1.

I moved back to Wellington in August 2012, and was immediately offered work as a freelance interpreter with Nationwide Interpreter Resource and a full-time position with the School District of Palm Beach County. Since that time I have worked and studied, and now hold an EIPA Level 4.1.
Hard work pays off, and to think it all started in a middle school club.

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