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Lives in Translation Program Aids Newark’s Covid-19 Contact Tracing Efforts

Faculty, students, and alumni at the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark (SASN) have found many ways to be of service during the current Covid-19 pandemic, from 3D-printing masks for frontline healthcare workers to delivering food to the elderly and needy. Recently the Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) community has found another way to contribute: by aiding the city of Newark’s contact-tracing efforts via its Lives in Translation Project (LiT).

Created in 2016 by Jennifer Austin, who is a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, and a group of RU-N faculty from SASN and Rutgers Law School, LiT leverages RU-N’s remarkable diversity by recruiting undergraduate volunteers to serve as interpreters and translators to help immigrants seeking legal services. That need is especially great in Newark, where 45 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

The nonprofit Newark Alliance, which focuses on economic revitalization and is partnering with the city on its contact-tracing work, foresaw the Covid-19 threat and got into gear early. On April 26, the organization called Chancellor Nancy Cantor to see how RU-N might be involved in the effort. Cantor saw a perfect fit in LiT and reached out to Austin and new LiT Director Stephanie Rodriguez, along with LiT co-founder Randi Mandelbaum, a professor at Rutgers Law School who runs its Child Advocacy Clinic.

“After speaking with Newark Alliance, Nancy suggested we create a group of both translators and legal-clinic experts in case any contacts needed legal advice,” said Rodriguez. “It seemed vital to engage voices for people with limited-English proficiency and put them at ease.”

The next day, on April 27, Rodriguez put out a call for student volunteers and was flooded with. responses. On May 5, LiT provided 12 translators from its volunteer database of more than 800 students and has since added 13 more to the effort for a total of 25. LiT also has six summer interns who started contact tracing near the end of May. The LiT translators are helping specifically with the three top languages Newark Alliance and its partner, Believe in a Healthy Newark, had requested: Spanish, Portuguese and Creole.

I've been able to feel like a valuable member of my community by using my language, communication and operational skills to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

Interns are working 8 hours per week over a six-week period while doing a 2-hour-per week interpretation and theory workshop with Rodriguez. Volunteers are putting in as many hours during the summer as their schedules will allow, with the majority averaging 15 hours per week until the fall semester.

To prepare for the job, volunteers and interns completed a six-hour training in May, which was a combination of live video sessions and online tutorials, complete with Powerpoint presentations, self-assessments and scripts, and a follow-up training with the New Jersey Department of Health in mid-June.

LiT volunteers and interns have been working from home using Google Voice to connect via audio with Newark residents, identifying themselves as calling for the Newark Department of

Health. They reach out to contacts who may have been exposed to someone with Covid-19, ask if they're exhibiting symptoms, and identify any underlying conditions the contact may have.

For those who have symptoms, LiT translators urge them to take certain precautions, advise them to seek medical attention and offer resources for them to navigate the process. Those without symptoms are advised to quarantine for 14 days, limit contact with others and take precautions such as frequently washing hands; LiT students then follow up with the resident every other day for the next 14 days to see if symptoms develop.

The translators follow HIPPA guidelines, and all calls are kept strictly confidential.

“The volunteers and interns we have are incredible—just so talented and devoted,” said Rodriguez. “We’re very lucky to have them.”

The job, however, also can be emotionally fraught.

One student helped a family through a Covid-19-related death, listening with empathy and providing them with financial, grief-counseling and funeral-service resources.

To ensure LiT students are up to the task, Rodriguez brought a social worker into one of her weekly student-intern workshops to discuss how they can help contacts work through any grief, emotional burdens and feelings of isolation they may be experiencing. The social worker also talked about how the students can maximize self-care while minimizing the risk of burnout, an occupational hazard of the job.

Student volunteers have also received this training via their six-week onboarding sessions with Newark Alliance and the state. Rodriguez also has stressed that she herself is available to any interns and volunteers who need to talk.

LiT students have given a voice for self-advocacy to communities who may not have had one.

LiT students have cherished the experience.

“I’m so glad that Rutgers University offered this internship,” said Desiree Roquetti, a senior from Elizabeth, NJ, pursuing a B.A./M.A. in political science as part of an accelerated program. “I've been able to feel like a valuable member of my community by using my language, communication and operational skills to help stop the spread of Covid-19 and have had amazing instruction to help us navigate all these processes, which allowed us to contribute in such difficult times.”

LiT’s contribution to the city’s contact-tracing program is part of a much larger city and statewide effort. The Newark Department of Health had 161 contact tracers as of early June, with approximately 2,800 contacts monitored. In addition to LiT, city partners include NJPAC, Newark Public Schools, additional Rutgers University entities, and volunteers from all over the city who responded to calls by Mayor Ras Baraka and other announcements.

Rodriguez has been floored by both the rapidly changing landscape and the enormous response.

“I would never have thought I’d be faced with a pandemic my first semester with LiT, but it’s been so encouraging to see how students responded, how our multilingual students wanted to share that skill, and how LiT students have given a voice for self-advocacy to communities who may not have had one.”

LiT is offering fall 2020 internships as well as translation/interpreting courses through RU-N's Spanish and Portuguese Studies department.