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Columbia Business Monthly

Richland School District 2: The Gift Of Language

Oct 04, 2017 09:15AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Debbie Nelson, DNA Creative Communications
Photography By K Campbell Photography

Did you know that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual? How many languages do you speak? Personally I would be hard-pressed to have a simple conversation in French despite years of study in high school and college. I only speak English.

Speaking more than one language is truly an asset. Research suggests that bilingualism improves your competitiveness in the job market. It boosts your resume to the top of the pile and can open up new career opportunities. And according to the Department of Labor, translators and interpreters are expected to be one of the 15 fastest growing occupations. In addition, it has been found that college graduates who speak two languages make an average of two percent more.

Also, consider the cultural benefits. When you can converse with someone in their native tongue, it gives you the opportunity to understand the nuances of their culture. It offers you a new perspective and it may help you to see the world a little differently.

However, one of the best gifts of bilingualism may be the enormous health benefits. Numerous studies have found improved brain function. Speaking a second language can improve one’s problem-solving, multitasking and decision-making abilities. And it can slow the effects of old age. Conditions such as memory loss, confusion and difficulties with problem solving occur later in life for those who speak more than one language.

So open your ears and listen. You will find an entire generation of bilingual individuals in our community just like Estefania Fuentes. A senior at Richland Northeast High School, she was born in the United States and grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. It was not until kindergarten that she began learning English. However, if you met her today, you would have no idea that English was not her first language. 

Recognizing that she has a valuable gift to share, Estefania volunteers as an interpreter in her school’s guidance office five days a week. She is a member of the Student Interpreters Program, an initiative at Spring Valley and Richland Northeast High Schools. This is the third year of the program that was the brainchild of Ron Huff, the District’s Hispanic Family Liaison. Through this program, Spanish-speaking 11th and 12th graders with strong grades are recruited and trained as volunteer interpreters for parents, students, teachers and district staff. They volunteer at their schools and at outside community events.

All volunteers must commit to 200 hours of service over the course of the school year. This begins with a series of trainings preparing the students with professional skills to become certified as an interpreter. Volunteers learn the five pillars of interpretation and other real world skills to hone their talents.  Those who succeed in completing the program receive a district certificate and can earn graduation credits for work-based learning. In addition, they have established the foundation to open their own interpretation business some day.

This is Estefania’s second year in the program. She loves helping others and recognizes the importance of providing her valuable language skills to give others a voice. “It is not always easy. You must first make the person feel comfortable that you are there to help. They often wonder who I am. I introduce myself and things become less awkward,” she says. 

“Some situations may be sensitive or personal. There is a fine balance between words and context and we provide our student volunteers with training about handling these discussions. We prepare them with role playing exercises,” says Nathan O’Neill, the ESOL Director for Richland County District 2.

This year, there are 16 student interpreters in the program. “I really like working with my teammates. We work so well together,” Estefania says. Student interpreters recognize they’re doing much more than volunteering – this opportunity is literally life changing and establishing a foundation for their futures.

With a generous grant provided by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, the student interpreters are proudly wearing polo shirts with their school logo and the tagline “Yo Hablo Espanol.” In addition, volunteers will have the opportunity to take the Language Line Academy’s Electronic Language Proficiency Test in Spanish to assess their skills. 

“We are pleased to invest in Richland School District 2’s program as part of our Immigrant Families Initiative,” says vice president of initiatives and public policy, Dr. Stephanie Cooper-Lewter at the Foundation. “The program is uniquely designed to provide bilingual Latino high school students an opportunity to build their skills, lead, and serve, well-preparing them for the 21st century work force.”

While the Student Interpreters Program has so many great outcomes to share, I think it is best summarized by Nathan O’Neill: “To me, the most amazing result of the program is to see how much the students grow in their confidence as bilingual professionals, how their families see the potential for a future using their bilingualism, and how District and community leaders experience these students as a real asset to our culture.”

Debbie Nelson is the President of DNA Creative Communications, an inspirational marketing and public relations firm for nonprofits. She is the founder of Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums in the Upstate and at the state level she coordinates Together SC’s Knowledge Network. Debbie is also an adjunct professor at Presbyterian College and Clemson University.

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