University of South Florida


USF News

Hands On USF: Professional Preparation for Students Whose Life’s Work Will Be Bridging Hearing, Deaf Worlds
Hands on USF interpreter Kelly O'Brien, studying for her bachelor's degree in interpreter training, recently interpreted for a deaf mother attending a transfer orientation with her daughter. Hands on USF receives about 1,000 requests for service annually.

It’s a dreary weekday morning, but the excitement is almost palpable inside the USF Marshall Student Center, where hundreds of transfer students and their parents are learning about majors, internships, the “Go Bulls!” hand symbol, and countless other facets of the USF student experience.

The constant among the cheering and ever-changing presenters: the Hands on USF interpreter at stage right, who keeps her eyes trained on one mother, ensuring she doesn’t miss a word about the institution she’s entrusting with her daughter.

“My mission, just as every interpreter’s, is to make sure there is clear communication for all parties involved, not only the client who is deaf. My personal goal is to make the people involved feel that their experience is no different from everyone else who is there as well,” said Kelly O’Brien, who interpreted under the supervision of Hands On USF Coordinator Michon Shaw at the orientation for Sandra Busby, who is deaf and whose daughter, Camille, is transferring to USF in the fall.

“For me, interpreting at the orientation was a learning experience in that I had more than 400 people looking at me. It was intimidating at first, but I was there for an important purpose — to give my client the ability to participate in her daughter’s orientation, just like all the other parents in the room.”

Herein lies the mission that has guided Hands on USF since its founding, even as it has expanded to provide services well beyond USF’s campus boundaries: Bridge the hearing and deaf communities, and in the process, develop highly prepared interpreters.

Soon after she came to work at USF in 2006, Andrea Smith, interpreter training undergraduate program coordinator, noticed that there was a need for both centralized interpreting services and a wider range of experiences for interpreters in training.

“We had departments just down the hall from each other using different interpreting agencies. It was very piecemeal. We wanted to provide consistently high-quality services across the university,” Smith said.

“At the same time, 99 percent of our students were completing their internships in K-12 classrooms; the schools were our primary source of placement sites. That is great if you want to go into educational interpreting, but there are so many other specializations — medical, legal, performing arts. Interpreters use a generalized set of skills across the settings, but in medical, they need to know more anatomy and physiology terms, and in legal, they need to know more about the protocols of the court system. By offering limited placement sites, we were offering limited opportunities and experiences for professional growth.”

Smith’s solution to both these problems was Hands on USF, which to her knowledge is one of very few, if not the only, services of its kind.

Students studying toward their Bachelor of Arts in Interpreter Training spend their second-to-last semester working with Hands on USF, rotating through modules that now include medical interpreting; the video relay service, which allows deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals to communicate with hearing individuals through interpreters via video screen; educational interpreting; and community interpreting, a catchall term for everything from last semester’s TedX event to the recent transfer orientation.

Camille Busby, who is transferring to USF in the fall, attended a recent transfer orientation with her mother, Sandra, who is deaf. Sandra was able to participate in the event thanks to services provided by Hands on USF.

At each of their assignments, Hands on USF students are accompanied by nationally certified interpreters, who watch to make sure they’re interpreting accurately and are ready to jump in if they need help. More often than not, it’s Shaw who supervises the students, but Smith, a handful of faculty members and several contracted interpreters fill gaps in the schedule when needed.

Hands on USF clients request services through an online booking system, found at Over the years, both the geographic distance and variety of the jobs have grown considerably. Hands on USF has provided services from The Villages to Sun City Center, and for everything from comedy shows to days-long professional conferences.

Hands on USF is now filling an average of 1,000 requests per year.

“To me, conferences are a big milestone for this service. A lot of our students have not yet had the opportunity to attend conferences themselves, but they’ve been able to translate complex information to large groups of professionals — that makes me very proud,” Smith said.

Added Shaw: “Our students are now seeing a variety of styles of language, backgrounds and ethnicities. They’re learning that it is their responsibility to prepare for their assignments, and they’re learning to do a lot of self-analysis afterward so that they continue to develop their skill sets. With the modules, we’re helping students get an idea of what area of interpreting they want to work in in the future, and what it will take to be successful in their chosen specialty.”

Hands on USF student interpreters are supervised by nationally certified interpreters. Many times, Michon Shaw, Hands on USF coordinator, accompanies the students to ensure they are translating correctly and to provide backup if necessary.

Doctor’s appointments are fairly routine requests, but even those present invaluable learning opportunities. Students must learn to handle mundane inconveniences, such as visits that are cancelled at the last minute, or checkups that run long. It is often in doctor’s offices that students first encounter regional variations in American Sign Language. Just as northerners say “soda” and Midwesterners say “pop,” the same such differences exist in sign language, and recognizing and communicating around them is a key interpretation skill.

It was in a medical setting that Hands on USF provided perhaps its most unusual service to date: A non-ASL-using deaf patient communicated to a certified deaf interpreter, who then communicated to the Hands on USF interpreter, who then spoke to the doctor. Then everything was repeated in reverse, and so on and so on until the end of the appointment. Certified deaf interpreters are sometimes used to facilitate communication between deaf individuals and ASL interpreters.

Recent Interpreter Training graduate Aimee Puerta is now working for a video relay service and as a community interpreter. Her Hands on USF experiences, she said, provided a solid foundation on which she is now building a career.

“Through Hands on USF, I learned that interpreting is a skill, but so is preparing for the assignment. When the opportunity is there, it is really important to prepare for the terminology that will be used, for accents, if someone involved speaks with one, for the rate of speaking that will be used,” Puerta said.

“The opportunity to work alongside experienced people and get their feedback was wonderful.”

Another advantage Hands on USF offers interpreters in training: the chance to fully understand the difference they make in their clients’ lives.

“It was important for me to participate in the transfer orientation because I am there for Camille, and I want to know as much information as possible to prepare her to make a smooth transition from home to college,” said Sandra Busby.

“I am thankful that USF provides ASL interpreters to sign for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Without the interpreters, we would be totally lost, not getting all the information we need to know for our children. It is important for deaf people to participate in the orientation as well as hearing people.”

Hands on USF is just one of the many advancements USF’s Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, housed within the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, is celebrating this year as it marks its 50th anniversary.

Story by Rachel Pleasant, University Communications & Marketing, Photos by Eric Younghans, University Communications & Marketing