Growing up, Anna Chen ’24 observed firsthand one of the biggest obstacles for immigrants: language.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she often served as an interpreter and translator for her parents and extended family. “I saw how they were penalized for not being able to speak English fluently,” she said. “I have personally witnessed what it is like to have unmet language needs.”
When Chen arrived at Cornell, she turned to the Translator-Interpreter Program (TIP), a student-run program at the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement that trains bilingual and multilingual students to serve as translators and interpreters for the community in both countries. emergency and non-emergency situations. People receiving program services are most often immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers navigating – with limited English skills – in an unfamiliar culture with legal, employment, health care and complex social services.
“What appealed to me was being able to use my language skills to help bridge those gaps and barriers, to create a more equitable community,” Chen said.
The program has 45 active translators and interpreters, with 14 languages represented, and has worked with over 300 community agencies since its founding in 2000 by Fatema Sumar ’01. A 23-member student executive council coordinates comprehensive training for volunteers, community organizations, and university departments, with an emphasis on equal partnership. Language teachers certify volunteers’ language skills through exams that simulate emergency situations, ensuring students are prepared to provide service to the community. Students responded to 39 community requests in the fall 2021 semester alone.
“There are so many people in our community who don’t have access to services because of language barriers,” said Joyce Muchan ’97, co-founder and advisor for TIP and assistant director of student programs at the Einhorn Center. “Linguistic inequity in the community is reflected in the depth and breadth of student work.
When requests come in, a student incident coordinator contacts the appropriate volunteers, sometimes on very short notice. Student interpreters have been called into high-profile emergencies: after an armed robbery at a Chinese restaurant in Dryden in 2003, a shooting at the American Civic Association in Binghamton in 2009, and the crash of a semi -trailer to a restaurant in downtown Ithaca in 2014, for example. A local fire – where a family was unable to contact emergency responders – inspired Sumar and Muchan to found the program.
Recently, TIP volunteers worked with Cornell Law School’s Asylum and Convention Against Torture Clinic to provide interpretation services to asylum seekers who have experienced torture and persecution in their home countries. These clients found it difficult to navigate complex asylum and immigration laws in the United States, in part because of language barriers.
A recent case involved a French-speaking victim of torture from sub-Saharan Africa who was denied asylum after representing himself in court. In preparation for an appeal, a TIP volunteer helped clarify misunderstandings that were presented to the judge in the original case.
“Student TIP empowered our law students to get to the heart of the matter and help tell the story in a way that we hope our client will win” , said Ian Kysel, visiting assistant clinical professor of law. “In general, these language barriers make it very difficult for migrants to have the most basic experience of fairness within the system. This is an essential prerequisite for the whole of the justice system works as it should.
Promote social justice
Other recent projects also reflect TIP’s mission to provide equal access and promote social justice. The students served as interpreters and translators for Tompkins Community Action, a non-profit organization that provides access to housing; for the Excluded Workers Fund, a fund for undocumented or partially documented New Yorkers; for the Global Strategic Litigation Council for Refugee Rights; and for domestic violence and homeless shelters, among many other projects.
For Chen, one of the most impactful jobs has been helping non-English speakers on campus. In conjunction with the Community Learning and Service Partnership (CLASP), TIP undertook a semester-long project to translate 10 different units of study material into multiple languages for a highly technical food safety test required by all employees at Cornell Dining.
“It’s an incredibly diverse body of employees in this department,” said Sasha Endo, program liaison for CLASP. “Many have just arrived from their home countries and started working, and these translations are a huge help and relief to people starting out here.”
As with many student programs, COVID-19 has presented obstacles – there has been less in-person contact with local agencies, for example – but the pandemic and the communication challenges surrounding it have also put more stress on highlights the need for linguistic equity.
“The pandemic has shown the magnitude of the need, and our program’s capabilities and extraordinary leadership have met that need. The students have been, in the true sense of the word, the kind of leaders Cornell wants to have,” Muchan said. “They put in unprecedented time and dedication to figure out what needed to be done and how to do it.”
TIP has done important work for the Tompkins County Health Department, translating local vaccine frequently asked questions documents into 10 languages and providing scripts and voiceovers for public service announcement videos.
“We needed to get the information out quickly, and that information changed frequently,” said Shannon Alvord, public health communications coordinator for the Tompkins County Health Department. “The more localized information we can provide in someone’s language, the more accessible and welcoming that information can be. We want to make sure people with low literacy or who don’t speak English have the information they need to make decisions that will ultimately keep them safe. TIP really filled that gap in a time of need.
“Working with Tompkins County took a lot of coordination,” said Jordine Williams ’22, Co-Chair of TIP. “But it felt meaningful and important because this is information that we really wanted everyone in our community to have, especially in the midst of a lot of misinformation.”
TIP is unique, Muchan said, particularly because it is student-run, entirely volunteer-based, and includes rigorous language certification by faculty. “Our student council members learn leadership skills focused on listening and responding to community needs in real time,” Muchan said. “And the language faculty’s involvement and support for language equity allows this program to survive and thrive.”
TIP has won numerous awards, including a Town-Gown Award and the Quiet Influence Award from Cornell, as well as the Corrine Galvin Humanitarian Award from the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission. And other universities have asked for advice on how to start similar programs.
“I have always been impressed by the dedication and sensitivity of TIP students,” said Kysel. “We appreciate all the work they do – their flexibility, their humanitarian instincts and their emotional and intellectual work.”