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Editor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty and staff series in which professors and/or staff members discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. Heidi Russell-Kalkofen is Student Coordinator at Montgomery College.

By Heidi Russell-Kalkofen

Heidi Russell-Kalkofen and her team serve international students at MC

When we can welcome visitors in our offices on campus, this scene plays out often;

“Hello,” I hear a hesitant voice say. “I want to learn at Montgomery. My English is not so good.”

I smile as I watch as my student assistant ask our visitor, “would you like a translator to talk with us?”

“Oh yes, thank you,” the visitor replies with relief.

“Okay,” my student assistant says as they pick up the phone, “what language do you speak?”

I know this will be a fruitful discussion. Soon a professional translator will be on the phone with our staff and visitor to facilitate the discussion.  They may be face to face with a speaker phone between them or have the translator join a phone call.  As the translator helps carefully explains our academic system and opportunities, we know our visitor’s excitement will grow.

On a more recent day, I connect with a student on Zoom from their home country. I see the family kitchen in the background and I sense someone else is seated just outside my field of view. I love getting glimpses of a student’s home life in this new virtual setting. This student’s English is pretty good. We chat easily for a while until the student says, “My mom has some questions about the visa process that I can’t really explain to her.”

I reassure them we will get a translator on the Zoom call. I tear up a little as I say hello to the nervous woman now appearing on the screen. I know she wonders who will help her baby, who will be far from home during a global pandemic. When the translator joins the call, they help me tell the student’s mother the story of my children, who studied in another country. I commiserate with her about the challenges of dealing with “government bureaucrats” in her country and mine.

We know we need to focus on reaching out to speakers of many languages. I really appreciate the ability to develop personal relationships I have with good communication tools like translators.

The College uses Voiance, the leading provider of language interpreting services, to bring these professional translators to us. It provides rapid access to language assistance via phone or in a virtual session. They support hundreds of languages and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I wonder how the College dealt with these experiences before we had Voiance. I recall relying on students who happened to be in the office. Sometimes, I even called out my window to students I knew who were between classes to help me. We made it work, but I was never sure if students were adding details (of their own experience) that might not apply to the person with whom I was speaking. At times students—or colleagues—would finish translating something and reticently admit they were unsure about a couple of the terms. They hoped they had not confused someone. It was all somewhat unpredictable.

Students connect during an orientation before the pandemic

I am now confident what we say is what is understood. We also use it less than I anticipated. For many people, knowing interpretation and translation services are available allows them to try speaking English. I am glad that the option of getting help easily makes them feel both supported and brave. They feel good about attempting, but many are relieved to know we can get a translator easily.

The College’s Language Advisory Group (LAG), a diverse team assembled by the Office of Communications, helps identify and evaluate the College’s language needs.  We discuss using Voiance and other services frequently.   Serving on the LAG introduced me to MC’s great resources and creative ideas on using them.

When I talk to colleagues at other institutions, I proudly share that we have this resource (I like bragging a bit, too). Montgomery College is the most diverse community college in the continental United States. We know we need to focus on reaching out to speakers of many languages. I really appreciate the ability to develop personal relationships I have with good communication tools like translators.  They say 70 percent of communication is nonverbal—and I believe this to be true. The genuine smiles I see (and hear), even though there is a language barrier, let me know we are connecting. That means the world to me.


Banner photo credit: filo.

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