HIS Sign Scheduling Manager, Michelle Wenck developed an interest in sign language around age 8. She told us when she was in third grade, her babysitter thought it would be funny to teach her how to sign “cuss words.” Little Michelle thought this was the coolest thing, “to be able to speak with your hands” (for the record, she had no idea what the words meant). We use the term “speak” loosely. Michelle’s mom found out about this little experiment, put the kybosh on it and according to Michelle, they both got in big trouble!
Michelle: I still really liked being able to communicate with my hands though, so when I found out they offered summer classes during kids camp at the local community college I hopped on it! In high school I also took ASL as a foreign language and joined the ASL club where I was also president for 2 years. I really felt a connection to the deaf community.
Toni: It sounds like you developed a love for ASL very early in life. Did you aspire to become an interpreter once you finished school?
Michelle: Well, unfortunately I was told there was “no future in this,” and that interpreting isn’t a real profession.
Toni: Yikes! Well that certainly isn’t encouraging.
Michelle: No, it wasn’t. Since I believed it, I decided to major in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine in college. I went to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Toni: Ok. So how did that work out for you?
Michelle: Athletic Training was my other passion, but I missed the Deaf Community and signing every day. So, I found an old minor at TCU that hadn’t been used in several years which would allow me to take ASL classes for credit. I started my sophomore year taking these classes and formed a friendship with my teacher who encouraged me to pursue my passion.
Toni: That’s great you had a teacher to help you identify which direction you really wanted to go and help put you on the right path. Were there any obstacles after that?
Michelle: Well, I took some ASL classes but I could see immediately that the instructor was basically signing English and not ASL. So I called her out on it. I probably didn’t approach it in the best way by calling her out but she actually respected me for it and admitted no one had ever questioned her about it.
Toni: Haha! I guess she could see you were serious.
Michelle: Exactly! But, she really supported me after that in writing a letter of recommendation to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology or National Technical Institute for the Deaf) in my behalf. I was accepted during my senior year at TCU and upon graduation I moved to Rochester, NY.
Toni: Good for you Michelle! I know in recent years that university has like a lower than 50% acceptance rate! Bravo! Well, one last question for you … with your years of experience in ASL, what advice would you give to a new interpreter?
Michelle: Hmm … I would say to get yourself immersed in the community. When I was still in the learning process in Texas, my friend found this senior center that really needed a lot of help. They didn’t have any kind of activities for the 20 Deaf senior citizens there and they just seemed so sad and unengaged. So I created a fun community JUST FOR THEM, one where we celebrated every holiday in a big way! We also had Bingo games and plenty of themed days like Mint Chocolate Chip Day, where everyone dressed in green and brown. We did a lot of different things and they loved it! I would go twice a week and spend four hours each time. It was the best 18 months ever!
I’d also encourage all interpreters while on an assignment, to refrain from getting too close or letting personal feelings get in the way of your performance. Especially when you know the topic being discussed is different than what you may believe or know. Patience and kindness are key. Have fun, while still being professional.