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Program is sign of changing times


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 classmates.


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 improving.”


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 really considered.”


The beginning 

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.


Choosing UNF 


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.


Her 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.


“I really 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 my professor.”


Jackson said the rigorous nature of the course work also drew her interest.


“Learning 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.”


Learning from afar 


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.”


Cornelius seconded 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 years.


“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.


Hands on 


Brooke 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 friends.


“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 interpreting.”


Real-world usage    


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 pageant judge.


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 language.”


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 speaker/user.”


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 accrediting examination.


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.


Continuing growth 


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.


“That’s a 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.”