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LRSC and Minot State partner to enhance American Sign Language interpreting programs

By   Amy Wobemma

A new degree program recently approved by the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education is designed to teach more people how to communicate with people who are deaf and hard of hearing. 

The new Bachelor of Applied Science in Interpreting and Sign Language Studies is a collaborative effort among Minot State University (MSU), Lake Region State College (LRSC) in Devils Lake, and the North Dakota School for the Deaf/Resource Center for Deaf & Hard of Hearing (NDSD/RCDHH). A grant from the Bush Foundation and a match from the Higher Ed Challenge Fund will assist in the development of the program.

“This degree program lays a foundation to prepare professional American Sign Language interpreters to work in a variety of settings,” said Greg Sampson, Department of Special Education chair at MSU. “This new program will positively impact children and their families in the region.”

 “We recognize at North Dakota School for the Deaf the need for more highly trained interpreters,” said Lilia Bakken, Communications Coordinator for NDSD.  Bakken has worked at the NDSD for nearly 35 years, and she has been involved with sign language interpreting her entire tenure. 

According to Bakken, the School for the Deaf first approached Lake Region State College about offering training in American Sign Language fifteen years ago.

“We considered LRSC to be a perfect host for an interpreter training program since both of our schools were located in the same community,” said Bakken. NDSD offered to help LRSC by providing their program with site opportunities for field experience work and internships.  Officials at LRSC were open to the idea and established a two-year program in American Sign Language and Interpreting Studies (ASL & IS) in 2001.

It is the only program of its kind in North Dakota.

American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters are in great demand throughout North Dakota and across the nation.

Lake Region State College (LRSC) offers North Dakota’s only degree-granting training program for ASL Interpreters. Students may complete a one-year certificate in American Sign Language and/or a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in ASL Interpreting.  Schools and agencies are eager to hire Interpreting program graduates to meet professional interpreters need for serving deaf and hard of hearing individuals.     

Interpreting program graduates are encouraged to take the national accrediting test, provided by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).  The RID credential assesses interpreter skills on a numerical scale and is highly regarded (often required) as proof of interpreting skill. Recently, RID changed its standards to require that individuals possess baccalaureate degrees (in any academic field of study) as a pre-requisite to testing.  This new rule is creating significant barriers for LRSC’s interpreting graduates who possess Associate degrees.  Those who wish to take the RID test must continue their education to complete a BS degree which likely includes no interpreting related coursework.   Then, after completing the bachelor’s degree they may test for the RID credential.  However, most students must have opportunities to practice/build interpreting skills during the second two years of their education to enhance skills and ensure high  RID test scores.   

Dr. Holly Pedersen, Associate Professor of Special Education at MSU, said the development of the bachelor’s degree program was the recommendation of a statewide task force that looked at programs and services available for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. She said the group learned that the training requirements for those who wish to pursue certification in interpreting had changed in 2012, and as a result candidates needed a bachelor’s degree in order to take the certification test. Because a bachelor’s degree for interpreting wasn’t offered in the state, students pursued unrelated degrees and found it difficult to retain their sign skills in the process.

MSU has a long-standing deaf education and special education program, making it a great complement to the two-year American Sign Language and Interpreting Studies program at LRSC. Lisa Ginther, ASL instructor at LRSC,  says the partnership will essentially create a “2 plus 2” program, where students can study for two years at LRSC to earn an associate’s degree, and then study another two years at MSU to earn the bachelor’s degree. 

Pedersen said the program, which will be offered online, aims to retain students in North Dakota and give them the option to stay in their communities while earning a degree. “We want to make learning convenient and flexible for students,” she said.

A key to the group’s success in obtaining the grant from the Bush Foundation was demonstrating that they were committed to enhancing the online delivery so that it mirrors a live learning experience. “Our two institutions are leaders in the delivery of distance education,” said Pedersen.

She added that it takes a great deal of time and effort to build and refine the curriculum and delivery, and both LRSC and MSU are committed to doing so. “We know how to deliver high quality instruction,” said Pedersen. “I can see (the students) sign in real time and assess their skills.” 

Ginther said another goal of the program is to teach more people how to sign, increasing the number of people who can communicate with deaf people. ASL classes can fulfill foreign/world language credit requirements at high schools, so LRSC plans to reach out to schools throughout the state of North Dakota and inform them of the ASL classes available online and through IVN (Interactive Video Network). 

LRSC plans to begin offering American Sign Language Levels I thru IV online beginning with the fall semester in 2016. Right now students take those courses via IVN, and not all communities have access to IVN equipment. However, high schools do have access to computers, making the online program a great option for students who live in rural areas and for those who prefer to study at home.

Students will strengthen their signing skills throughout the program and the NDSD (the only place in North Dakota where ASL is the “first” language) will serve as an Interpreting skills laboratory. 

“We have set a high goal,” Ginther said. “People with hearing loss need and deserve equal access to communication.  Our goal is that graduates from this program will help fill the need for trained professionals who can provide sign language accessibility for people who rely on visual communication for understanding.”  

The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education approved the Bachelor of Applied Science in Interpreting and Sign Language Studies degree in October, and MSU plans to begin offering the program during the spring semester of 2016.

For further information about the cooperative program in American Sign Language and Interpreting Studies, call (701) 662-1514 or