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New Initiative Lets Undergrads Use Language Skills to Help Immigrants

For two decades Rutgers University–Newark has been ranked the most diverse campus in the country, and for the last three years a Chancellor’s Seed Grant initiative has been leveraging that diversity in a remarkable way: by recruiting undergraduate volunteers to serve as interpreters and translators to help immigrants in need of legal aid.

The Lives in Translation Project (LiT) was created in 2016 by a group of RU-N faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences–Newark (SASN) and Rutgers Law School with a $40K grant from the Chancellor’s Office. Since fall of that year, more than 100 student interpreters speaking eight languages have volunteered with the program.

Students have assisted pro bono attorneys working for two clinics run by Rutgers Law School—the Rutgers Law Immigrant Rights and Child Advocacy Clinics—along with a host of outside groups in northern New Jersey and New York City such as the American Friends Service Committee, the ACLU, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, the NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice, and the New York Legal Assistance Group. They’ve also been recruited to aid private-practice law firms.

“Our students are capable of so much, and this has been a way for them to draw on their linguistic proficiency and cultural knowledge and give back,” says Spanish and Portuguese Studies Professor Jennifer Austin, who started LiT and serves as the group’s faculty supervisor.

The students have worked in a wide range of contexts, helping to conduct know-your-rights, divorce and DACA clinics; lending their interpretation skills for client intakes, medical examinations, court appointments and asylum interviews; and translating hundreds of pages of legal documents, including Individualized Education Plans, birth certificates, affidavits, transcripts, letters of support, event flyers and more.

The project is an ingenious way to leverage RU-N’s diversity while fulfilling its role as an anchor institution impacting the community in Newark. It makes all the more sense in this city, where 45 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home. LiT’s top-five most in-demand languages have been Spanish, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Haitian-Creole.

To get the program running, Austin has worked closely with Law Professor Anjum Gupta, Director of the school’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, and recent law school graduate Anna Dichter, who worked for the clinic and has been LiT’s Program Manager.

Students from across campus have been giving their time as either LiT interns or volunteers. Interns commit to two interpreting timeslots for a total of 8–10 hours per week, plus a two-hour weekly training workshop, in exchange for 3 academic credits. The workshop, taught by Dichter, trains them in best practices, legal terminology, ethics, memorization techniques, note-take skills, resumé building, and problem-solving as needed. Interns complete a final written assignment and receive an academic grade based on their work throughout the semester. Dichter was assisted in teaching the workshop by undergraduate Raydel Rijo, who also served as an LiT intern in 2016.

Our students are capable of so much, and this has been a way for them to draw on their linguistic proficiency and cultural knowledge and give back.

LiT has had 18 interns since its inception and had requests for five more interns this summer.

Volunteers provide interpreting and translating services for all of the aforementioned organizations and are granted a certificate upon graduation. They receive less training than interns but are in great demand and are clamoring to help: LiT currently has a volunteer database of nearly 460 students who speak 48 different languages.

In fact, volunteers are so in demand that LiT has been contacted about several unique projects, including translating hundreds of pages of historic church documents in German for a community organization in Newark, along with hundreds of pages in Hebrew for a local law firm.

The project has provided students with great experience that is translating into a marketable skill-set. The job prospects for translators and interpreters are excellent: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it’s one of the top-five fastest growing occupations in the country, with a projected growth of 46 percent between 2012 and 2022.

Previous interns have gone on to translate novels, work at nonprofits, interpret/translate for law firms, prepare for the legal interpreting court exam, get certified as a professional legal interpreter and apply to law school.

LiT is also enabling students to gain new perspectives on their own situation.

“My whole life I have been living in a geographic area that has lived by the platitudes of being an immigrant haven,” says former intern Rafael Osorio, a former Spanish and History major at RU-N who graduated last year, “but with this internship, I finally had a part in helping those who have come here looking for a better life. The internship fomented a greater sense of purpose in my undergraduate studies at Rutgers and as a bilingual American.”

As part of the Lives in Translation initiative, Austin is starting both a minor and certificate program in Translation/Interpretation within the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies. She says the program should be up and running in spring 2020.

“The academic programs were part of our original Seed Grant proposal, but I felt that getting the volunteer effort off the ground was the most difficult and critical part, and so we did that first,” says Austin. “The success of that has actually held up the curricular part because the response has been overwhelming.  Our students have been incredibly generous, responsible and thoughtful in the way they have come forward and conducted themselves. It’s been amazing to see.”