The University of New Mexico Signed Language Interpreting (SLI) program was recently notified by the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE) that they have received a full 10-year accreditation for the Bachelor of Science in SLI. Only 14 programs in the country have earned that status. National changes in certifying signed language interpreters are going to create a greater need for the accreditation and will attract many more students to the program.

Professional interpreters have to be licensed or certified nationally, Phyllis Perrin Wilcox, program director, said. “In June 2012, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., the national organization that certifies professional signed language interpreters, began requiring a bachelor’s degree, although not necessarily in signed language interpreting. They are easing in that direction. From there, the plans are to possibly change the requirements for certification to a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program.”

She added that interpreters who graduated from two-year programs are “facing a wall” because they will need a four-year degree. “Our accreditation will draw many students from out-of-state, a big change from our student demographic to date, which has been predominately in-state students,” she said. She added that they are already seeing a “huge increase” in the number of students with associate degrees coming in from out-of-state.

Phyllis Perrin Wilcox said, “For the past 30 years, we have screened our students into the program. We knew their signing strengths, ethics and knew whether or not they would be a good fit for the program. We’ll be receiving applications from many students who are unknown to us. It will be a change.”

The accrediting team noted the program’s strengths, which include full integration into the Department of Linguistics where SLI resides. Caroline Smith, chair of linguistics, said, “The entire Department of Linguistics is delighted that the Signed Language Interpreting program has gained recognition that will enhance their high-quality training for interpreting students. UNM’s Linguistics programs are enhanced by the contributions of the SLI program students and faculty, which helps to distinguish our department from other Linguistics departments.” 

The faculty was a noted strength for their “exceptional qualifications and experience as researchers and scholars.” Phyllis Perrin Wilcox said that they are conducting a national search for a lecturer to replace Bonnie Rudy, who is retiring. They have been approved for an additional tenure track professor, as well, bringing the total tenure track faculty to four with three lectures and additional part time instructors, she said.

Accreditors wrote, “A particular strength, possibly unique to UNM, is the availability of a librarian who is fluent in American Sign Language. The site visit team was very impressed with the librarian who was passionate about her job and about helping students in UNM’s SLI program access the many learning resources the library has to offer.” Sherman Wilcox, is a professor in the program and spent eight years as department chair. He said, “We appreciate the work Kat Gullahorn does with and for the SLI students and faculty in the library, but the fact is, we have graduates all over campus. Our graduates are in Recruitment and other offices all over campus using their interpreting skills.”

Phyllis Perrin Wilcox was also hailed. “[She] is exceptionally qualified with significant experience in administration, teaching and research. A strength of the program is the time and energy contributed to the overall management of the program by Phyllis Wilcox.”

Phyllis Perrin Wilcox said that it took the department two years to prepare for the accreditation, preparing the self-assessment and getting ready for the site visit. The process involved people outside SLI and Linguistics. “We had support from Provost Chaouki Abdallah, the deans, and other administrators. We could not have done it without them,” she said.

Abdallah said, “I am extraordinarily pleased that UNM’s Sign Language Interpreting program has gained the prestigious status as the fourteenth accredited interpreter training program in the country and one of only four accredited programs in the College of Arts & Sciences. Clearly, this will provide a competitive edge for UNM in recruiting the best students who seek to advance in this field of study. This status is a testament to the leadership in the college and the SLI department and I greatly appreciate their efforts to develop a program that is nationally recognized for excellence.”

The UNM program was established in 1971 with eight students, and has grown to an annual enrollment of more than 1,200 students. “This means is that more than 20,000 UNM students have taken a sign class of some level at some point in the past 40 years. Each of those students has friends and family members who know sign language,” said Phyllis Perrin Wilcox, program director.

Wilcox added that SLI has signed Memoranda of Agreement with seven agencies, including the Albuquerque Public Schools; Central New Mexico Community College; New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe; American Sign Language Academy, an Albuquerque charter school; UNM Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, an interpreter referral service; and several other interpreting referral centers across the state.

The accrediting team took notice of the community connections. “The community of stakeholders is a significant strength of the program. Such a community of supporters provides students exposure to a diverse group of people. It was made very clear to the site visit team that all stakeholders value greatly the SLI program at UNM and the faculty and students within the program.” The team further noted that providing students with study abroad and other cultural competency opportunities is a program strength.

Sherman Wilcox notes that many other schools have hired teachers of the deaf and interpreters, as mandated by state and national laws. In New Mexico, many of those individuals came through the UNM SLI program.  “I feel there is a deep groundswell of interest in our program's progress throughout the decades in New Mexico, probably more than most people might realize.”

 “Our faculty is most excited and pleased with this accomplishment. We hope to spread the word about the high standards that the University of New Mexico and our Signed Language Interpreting program have managed to achieve through the years,” Phyllis Perrin Wilcox said.