She held the class in rapt attention for
10 straight minutes. Every student’s gaze remained fixed on her as she rapidly
unfurled each thread of her story.
She smiled. They laughed.
She grimaced. They still laughed.
It’s a comedy, after all.
When she reached the grand conclusion, she
took one step back and basked in a stirring round of applause from her
Not bad for a speech that didn’t include a
single audible syllable.
“You kind of get caught up when you’re
signing, and you don’t realize you’re not speaking,” said Miranda Cornelius, a University of North Florida
master’s student with a concentration in American Sign Language and English
interpreting. “The more time you spend doing it, the more natural it feels to
communicate like that. And I like it because it’s a field where you can keep
Cornelius is just
one of about 40 students in the graduate-level sign language program —one of
UNF’s newest and most unique academic offerings.
Most of the
students in the program don’t even step foot on campus before signing up, said Dr.
Sherry Shaw, an associate professor and the program’s
director. Most meet with their professor in person only a handful of times.
“This program is
designed for working students from across the country to get the best education
they can while working and going about their lives,” Shaw said. “It’s another
example of how UNF is doing things academically that other universities haven’t
When the UNF program started in 2009, it was only
the second master’s program in interpreting in the country and the only one
designated as a distance-learning program. That means students can remain in
their home communities and participate online with just a one-weekend stint on
campus every semester. The unique nature of the coursework and academic
strength puts the program in rarified company in the interpreting world. UNF is
generally considered amongst the upper-echelon of ASL-friendly schools among
other colleges such as Kent State University in Ohio and Gallaudet University,
a private, federally chartered university specifically for deaf and
hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C.
ASL education at UNF has grown
exponentially since its inception, but it started quite modestly.
Shaw said the master’s
concentration in ASL/English interpreting was originally formed under the
umbrella of an existing special education degree. She said there had been a
groundswell of interest in a program that was accessible to everyone —
Jacksonville-area students and scholars from across the country. And with the
lack of dedicated master’s programs in ASL and interpreting, Shaw said UNF was
uniquely suited to carve out a graduate education niche.
It started in 2009 with a grand
total of five Florida students. They came to campus only three times a semester
and completed the bulk of their additional coursework online through
Blackboard. Later that year, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a
regional education compact that works with 16 member states including Florida,
approved the program for national student consumption.
Now, the ASL master’s program boasts
dozens of students from eight different states.
“It was a big step for us,” Shaw
said. “But we’re already focused on the future.”
That future includes the potential
to make the program a stand-alone major, not just a concentration. Shaw and her
department will present before the College of Education and Human Services’ Faculty
Assembly and the UNF Board of Trustees sometime 2012 in the hopes of receiving
approval for a degree upgrade.
In 2011, UNF opened a third program
in interpreting pedagogy, a technical way of teaching sign language. UNF is
currently one of three interpreting master’s degree options in the country.
The program staffs two full-time
faculty members and two part-time adjunct professors. Nine students in total
have graduated over the course of three semesters. And that number will
undoubtedly grow with the latest crop of students.
One of the main
factors that sets UNF’s ASL master’s program apart from the bulk of other
college offerings is the accessibility factor.
With the dearth of
graduate-level programs in the country for sign language, UNF really stands
out, especially in the southern portion of the country, Shaw said. Also, UNF's
program qualifies for Academic Common Market, a tuition-savings program through
the SREB that allows college students in the board’s 16 member states to pursue
degrees that are not offered by their in-state institutions. They can enroll in
out-of-state institutions while only paying the institutions’ lower in-state
tuition rates, Shaw said.
Combine that with
the distance-learning factor and the ASL program is a no-brainer for many
scholars looking to boost their long-term employability in the sign-language
world with an advanced degree.
That’s what drew
Holly Jackson to UNF. She received her bachelor’s degree in computer science
from Clark Atlanta University, a historically black university in Georgia, and
immediately jumped into a career in her chosen field. But after seven years in
the tech world, she found herself wanting something different. That drive to
change led her to obtain a two-year certificate in sign-language interpreting
from a small college near her home.
But when she was
looking to expand her education at the master’s level, she immediately
identified UNF as a top candidate.
classmate, Miranda Cornelius, a South Florida resident, was drawn to UNF
because of the program’s reputation. She received her bachelor’s degree in
interpreting from the University of South Florida and started working in the
field shortly after graduation. But when she wanted to further her education,
her sign-language-savvy coworkers and colleagues pointed her to UNF.
chose UNF because of its reputation and the faculty,” Cornelius said. “The
program's faculty contains some of the most highly respected and famous
professionals in the business. For example, Jan Humphrey wrote ‘So You Want To
Be An Interpreter?’ It’s used in practically
every interpreting program in America. It is like our bible. I never
believed I would have the opportunity to meet her, let alone have her be
Jackson said the
rigorous nature of the course work also drew her interest.
ASL in a distant environment is fine as long as this isn't your first-introduction
exposure to the language,” Jackson said. “So, for a graduate-level program, you
should have already learned the language and have some experience in the field.
The distance learning is really natural for this field because ASL is visual
anyway, deaf people use video phones to ‘talk,’ so using the Internet and video
chat for class seems only natural.”
Even though it’s
online-oriented, classes aren’t a cakewalk, students said. The degree program
includes classes that traverse the full catalog of sign language — finger
spelling, numbers, advanced ASL discourse, comparative linguistics and ASL structure.
And the digital
nature of the coursework helps push the class way outside the boundaries of
traditional academia. Students said they need to be on their toes just as much
online as in the classroom.
Shaw said each student enters the master’s program
with advanced ASL proficiency, and 80 percent of them already have national
interpreting credentials. However, very few have any experience with the type
of digitally focused classroom experience the program offers.
Nikki Cherry, a
University of Arkansas-Little Rock graduate and interpreting professional, said
she was wary at first about the types of assignments her professors handed out.
“We have to use
technology. A lot of technology,” she said. “We’re submitting videos, meeting
with our teacher and groups on ooVoo [a high-quality video chat
and video conferencing service] or another video chat system and posting
videos on YouTube. I thought this type of learning for ASL
studies would be more difficult, but it seems to be working well.”
Cherry’s initial misgivings. She said she had never been in a class that was so
digitally integrated. She simply didn’t know what to expect.
“One would think learning a visual
language through distance would be difficult — bordering on absurd,” she
said, “But the advancement in video technology made it extremely easy to
contact my professors. If I have a question or comment, I simply e-mail them,
or even Skype them. I really enjoy this type of learning, and I haven’t
experienced any negative aspects from not being in the classroom.”
Shaw said the digital integration
is a constant work in progress and will grow organically over the next few
“The program is always
experimenting with new technology as it becomes available to improve content
delivery and engage students with each other and their professors,” she said.
Schumacher, another University of
Arkansas-Little Rock graduate and interpreting professional, said the mandatory
in-class portion of their degree program helped supplement the rigorous online
coursework they were assigned.
She was able to put faces to names and converse
with her professor using only her hands. She was able to interact with the
people she’d e-mailed back-and-forth and swap study tips.
It took the class from a strange, sometimes foreign
online-only concept to a true, physical reality, she said.
“The distance-learning component
has taken some time to get used to,” Schumacher said. “However, through all of
the different programs available through current technology and Blackboard,
distance learning is possible and effective. We are able to have ‘face-to-face’
time with our professors and classmates — all at the same time or just
one-on-one. The hybrid component of the program allows us to study all together
on campus for a few days to a week. This time allows us to bond in person and
improves our online relationships.”
Schumacher said the relationships
she had cultivated online for a semester translated directly to the classroom.
Even though most had just flown in
from different parts of the country, Cornelius said they all felt like old
“I really enjoyed conversing and
discussing various aspects of interpreting with my classmates,” Cornelius said.
“It was great to hear their opinions, experiences and thoughts on
Cindy De’Angelo Hall, one of the
instructors for the course, led them through a rigorous series of drills during
the on-campus component of the course.
They arranged their chairs in a
horseshoe and conversed in a rapid-fire sign fest that engulfed the room in a
series of silent finger motions. Some of the students signed so quickly their
movements were nearly imperceptible, flowing gracefully from one form to the
next like a skilled dancer practicing the steps of an elaborate samba.
Then they queued up before their
professor and signed a randomly assigned phrase to Hall as though she were a
They did all that without the
slightest utterance of a word. It wouldn’t have mattered to their professor.
Hall is deaf, so she said the class is pushed to converse at all times using
only their fingers.
“It makes them better,” she said.
“They don’t have anything to fall back on. It’s like learning a foreign
Jackson said the experience was
immeasurably important to her ASL progression.
“The class was very intense,
demanding and busy,” she said. “It's a good intro for a graduate-level course. The
class helped me to further develop my ASL skills. Languages are fluid, thus you
must always continue learning and developing and adapting in order to maintain
the language, and the same goes for English. And because our teacher was deaf,
as well as a highly skilled, experienced and certified interpreter, it really
added to the course. We learned and saw firsthand from a native ASL
Shaw said the degree is designed
with a few goals in mind — prepare nationally certified interpreters to improve
their interpreting skills while acquiring the tools to one day teach
interpreting and serve as professional mentors to pre-certified interpreters.
The program also includes
introductory research skills for students who aspire to obtain terminal degrees
in related fields, Shaw said.
But it’s not meant to be
exclusionary. Students who enter the program without already having national
certification can boost their interpreting skills in order to pass the national
The proof is in the UNF graduates.
Shaw said they’re all gainfully employed in the field they chose.
“All graduates thus far have
stayed in the interpreting profession, either teaching in higher education,
interpreting in school systems, interpreting for the US military or
administering interpreting services,” she said.
The in-class and online experiences
of her degree coursework have made the UNF ASL program far more rewarding than
Cornelius said she could have ever imagined.
She also said the diversity of the
course has helped to boost UNF’s profile across the national interpreting landscape.
She said interpreting was still an
obscure profession when she first started studying ASL. But she attributed its
increased academic interest to enterprising schools such as UNF, which has
blossomed as an ASL powerhouse over the past few years.
“It’s because of programs being
created like the one at UNF that I can plan to achieve my national level from
the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf within the next year,” she said. “In
two years, I will have my master’s in interpreting, and then I would like to
begin my doctoral studies in the same field at UNF. I am just looking forward
to improving my interpreting skills in any way I can, and probably will be
doing so until the day I retire.”
Next up for the
program is the stand-alone major, which Shaw said will be discussed by UNF’s Board
of Trustees in the fall. After that, it’s not a far-fetched notion to consider
a doctoral program in ASL. The College of Education and Human Services’
doctoral program in educational leadership has a massive community footprint,
boasting more than 162 doctoral graduates since its creation in 1990.
possibility within our grasp,” Shaw said. “We’re growing, and that’s the
logical next step. UNF is a national ASL leader, and that would just increase
that prominence even more.”