Alicia Van Cleve and Victoria Rodriguez Mitchell, the ASL interpreters for Alik Zalmover ’22, wonder if people ever think that they are the first-year’s moms or sisters when the three walk around campus together.
The experience of having interpreters is certainly unique.
“It can’t be easy for an 18-year-old to come to university and have these two women following him around,” Rodriguez Mitchell said.
Diagnosed as deaf when he was two months old, Zalmover requires interpreters in order to have access to the same opportunities as other University students. He was paired with two sign language interpreters, Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell, through the University’s Office of Disability of Services (ODS) at the start of this year. The two women have worked together at the University since 2013.
They emphasized that their job is not merely to help Zalmover but instead to also support him in his academic pursuits.
“We’re here to provide a service that allows him to succeed at his top level,” Rodriguez Mitchell said.
ODS said they want to see each accepted student thrive.
“Students with disabilities have demonstrated their abilities as have all students who are accepted to the institution,” Elizabeth Erickson, director of disability services, wrote in an email. “So we want to provide them with appropriate accommodations to allow them to learn and grow in this environment.”
“For students who are deaf, accommodations may include the provision of sign language interpreters for classes and Princeton-sponsored programs, CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), and other academic accommodations,” Erickson wrote.
At the University, Zalmover plans to major in a STEM subject. He is involved in many extracurricular activities, including Matriculate and the Entrepreneurship Club.
However, he said “the number one priority is the classes.”
Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell attend all of Zalmover’s classes, but they only accompany him to other events when he asks them to come in advance.
Zalmover has a cochlear implant and is able to talk.
On a daily basis, he said he only uses the interpreters when it’s obvious that people don’t understand what he’s saying.
The two women acknowledge their important role in supporting Zalmover’s success by providing the best opportunity for him to have equal access to communication, Van Cleve said.
In order to maintain the best professional relationship possible, they need to give each other space at times. Van Cleve admitted that they have good days and bad days.
“Sometimes we’re on point and other days we’re like ‘What are you saying?’” Rodriguez Mitchell said.
“We’re a team and it’s a process,” Van Cleve said.
In addition to supporting Zalmover, Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell must assist each other. If one needs a moment of space or a break to watch a cute animal video, the other will assist Zalmover.
“As interpreters, we support each other so we can best support the student,” Van Cleve said.
Other important aspects of being an interpreter are maintaining confidentiality and faithfully interpreting under the national certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
Both women take their responsibilities very seriously by not disclosing how many students they have worked with or which events they have attended.
They acknowledged that “rendering the message faithfully” takes a lot of practice. It is important for them to understand the desires of the student they are working with.
American Sign Language (ASL) is a language with different codes, which are similar to dialects. Sometimes a student needs an exact word-for-word interpretation from English in work settings, while other times a different code is suitable.
To train, Van Cleve went to an interpreter training program, a two-year college program, and took a national exam three years later.
Rodriguez Mitchell first learned sign language from her childhood best friend’s deaf parents. She was certified under an older system and was recently recertified.
Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell have experience working with University students, but acknowledge that, as in any relationship, there is an adjustment period.
“It was a little difficult at first because they were two new interpreters,” Zalmover said when describing his first days with Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell.
“Victoria and I have pretty big personalities and it was maybe for him a bit overwhelming at first,” Van Cleve said.
“It was!” Zalmover exclaimed in agreement.
Now, the team has a close and loving relationship.
Overall, Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell feel grateful to work with Princeton’s welcoming community.
“Both of us adore being here at Princeton,” Rodriguez Mitchell said, mostly because they enjoy interacting with students and working for ODS.
However, their jobs are not their only responsibilities.
Rodriguez Mitchell has a husband, five sons, and a dog, and Van Cleve has a cat, four ducks, and five chickens.
Both have to leave their houses about two hours before they meet Zalmover to ensure that they arrive on time.
They spend very little time at home, but if not for the joys of their job, they “wouldn’t make that sacrifice,” Van Cleve said on interpreting at Princeton.
“It’s obviously worth it,” she said.
It is clear from their dedication to and appreciation for Zalmover that they recognize the importance of their jobs.
“When we’re here, we try to dedicate everything that we can,” Rodriguez Mitchell said. “It can be difficult to balance, but our dedication is strong to Princeton.”
This is evident to the University’s students, who see Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell at events ranging from Community Action orientation to on-campus concerts. Many people became familiar with the trio during first-year orientation activities when Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell interpreted for Zalmover in front of thousands of people each day.
Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell care so much that Zalmover has equal access to these events that they practice concerts and theater performances beforehand to nail down the nuances of the art.
Though they spent their first two weeks getting to know Zalmover through orientation activities, Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell said that they never felt like first-years themselves.
“It’s not our experience because we wouldn’t even be having this experience if it weren’t for Alik,” Van Cleve said.
While the two are grateful for their jobs, they do hope that in the future more of the student body will be able to communicate with Zalmover and other deaf students on their own.
They both encourage everyone to learn ASL, feeling that hearing people miss out on the chance to know an amazing community of people because of a communication barrier.
Princeton offers two semesters of ASL classes, but they do not count towards the University’s language requirement.
ASL use is not limited to communication with deaf people but could also be used in a loud room or with older people losing hearing, according to the two women.
Regardless of whether or not someone decides to learn ASL, Van Cleve and Rodriguez Mitchell encourage people to ask questions about interpretation, which is “better than to make assumptions,” Van Cleve said.
While they perform an invaluable service for Zalmover, they look forward to a future in which everyone signs and interpreters for deaf people are not necessary.
“I hope one day my job becomes obsolete,” Rodriguez Mitchell said.