Signs of excellence

Posted on April 16, 2019

Woman doing sign language
ASL interpreter Latoya Jordan '06 at the North Carolina Folk Festival.

The full version of this story originally appeared in UNCG Magazine. To read the full story and other stories about UNCG alumni making an impact, visit

The presence of skilled sign language interpreters, teachers, and advocates is critical in working toward a more accessible and fair society. Meeting needs for communication begins with comprehensive education in American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf culture. That’s where UNC Greensboro comes in.

UNCG’s Professions in Deafness in the School of Education is the only program in the UNC System that graduates students with a license in sign language interpreting. It is the only one in the nation to offer a program with three distinct tracks: Interpreter Preparation, Deaf Education K-12 teacher licensure, and Advocacy Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. And with each graduating class, its uniquely remarkable impact continues to grow.

The PID curriculum isn’t only about developing professional-level ASL skills but also about becoming familiar with the deaf or hard of hearing person’s experience, and the nuances within the Deaf community.

Students doing sign language
Students sign in Sam Parker’s American Sign Language IV course.

The students who graduate from the Interpreter Preparation program are prepared to take the national certification and provide services throughout the nation. They are at doctors’ appointments, educational settings, clients’ places of employments, large performances, and ceremonies – anywhere there are people, there are Deaf people, and there are Spartan interpreters. Relay service interpreters also help people remotely, with everything from ordering a pizza to talking to their child’s health care providers to calling their mothers on Mother’s Day.

From all accounts, ASL interpreting is tremendously challenging work.

“Interpreters have to learn how to manage incoming information, how to process that information, and how to put it out in ASL,” explains PID director and clinical professor Sam Parker.

Man doing sign language
Professions in Deafness Director Sam Parker

“Not only is it that you’re working with two different languages that are very different and distinct from each other, but you’re also the third person in sometimes very intimate or private situations,” adds Matt Baccari ’14, staff interpreter for Greensboro nonprofit Communication Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “We need to be aware of our personal biases and the deaf person’s biases and how that may affect the communication.”

Woman lecturing, man doing ASL interpretation
PID faculty member Kelle Owens (l) gives an introduction to community ASL classes through Communication Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Revolution Mill. Matt Baccari ’14 (r) interprets.

Latoya Jordan ’06 is a CODA, a child of a deaf adult. American Sign Language is her first language, so she is a native user. As a freelance interpreter, she has performed interpreting services for the North Carolina Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, within university settings, for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service, for film productions, funeral services, medical appointments, formal ceremonies, and at national music festivals, such as the National Folk Festival and Bonnaroo, often alongside other Spartans who graduated from the PID Interpreter Preparation program.

Singer with ASL interpreter
Latoya Jordan ’06 interprets at the North Carolina Folk Festival for Rhiannon Giddens.
Guitar player with ASL interpretre
Jennifer Vega-Cook ’14 interprets at the North Carolina Folk Festival.

“The idea of ‘interpreting’ has been around forever but as a profession, it is fairly new,” says Jordan. “Our country’s understanding of civil rights and its citizens’ needs for accommodations and laws to protect them helped establish and provide official recognition for the need of legally certified interpreters.”

While Jordan may be most visible to the public when interpreting for public events, her work behind closed doors she cites as more significant in terms of impact.

“99 percent of the assignments that interpreters accept are confidential in manner. One percent of the time you may see us doing platform work, where we are on stage interpreting. But I am successful in my profession every time I provide courteous, accurate interpretation, whether it was the assignment where I interpreted for President Barack Obama or when I hold the hand of a patient who has just found out they have cancer.”

In 2016, Jenese Portee ’06 became the first-ever staff sign language interpreter for the Peace Corps, providing training and consultation at the office headquarters in D.C. and throughout the world. She also put her skills to use signing for musical artist Pink at the Grammy awards in 2018.

“Every word that comes out of your mouth has to be received, thought about, organized, and shared into sign language in a split second. And the people who communicate via sign language are as unique as anyone else,” says Portee.

Stay tuned for more posts about the Professions in Deafness program, check out the full story in the Spring 2019 UNCG Magazine, and view the video about interpreting and advocacy below.

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications
Videography by Grant Evan Gilliard, University Communications


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