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Spanish faculty Robin Ragan talking to students in SPAN 206, Introduction to Spanish Interpretation, during final exam in a courtroom in the Knox County Courthouse, simulating actual legal proceeding, taking roles of interpreter, judge, jury, lawyer, and witnesses.

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Spanish Project Translates to Real-World Change

Spanish faculty Robin Ragan talking to students in SPAN 206, Introduction to Spanish Interpretation, during final exam in a courtroom in the Knox County Courthouse, simulating actual legal proceeding, taking roles of interpreter, judge, jury, lawyer, and witnesses.

Photo at top of page: Robin Ragan works with students before the pandemic.

At Knox, the emphasis in language education is on more than learning vocabulary and grammar—it's putting that knowledge to work in a real-world environment. That's an essential part of Professor Robin Ragan's Spanish 205 course, which last fall included a project translating audio testimonials from immigrants detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California.

Ashley Pineda '22, one of the students who participated, said, “I chose Spanish 205 because as a first-generation immigrant child, I had a lot of experience translating for both my parents and grandparents. I also wanted to take this opportunity to get proper training in Spanish translation. When I enrolled in this course, I did not know what projects I would be participating in, but if I had known, I would have been that much more excited.”

The experience proved to be more challenging than she and other students imagined when they started the course. The sound quality often was poor on the recordings, and some individuals spoke faster than others. “The audios were extremely hard to listen to, and in order to properly transcribe them, it was necessary to listen to it multiple times," said Pineda. 

Even more difficult, though, was the emotional aspect of listening to people’s traumatic and heartbreaking experiences.  

"The things I heard on there were things I believe no human being should be forced to experience,” said Pineda. The recordings reported on the lack of medical resources, crowded conditions, and the absence of COVID-19 precautions within the center. Individuals also recounted details about a hunger strike and retaliation. “I know that the individuals in those audios have families, and I can't begin to imagine how it must feel for them to actually have their loved ones in those situations. It broke my heart to know that most people may never hear the stories of these individuals.”

Pineda continued: “My experience in this project has made me realize that knowing Spanish can do miraculous things for social work, [and] it was actually this experience that made me decide to change my psychology minor to a self-designed minor in Spanish interpreting and translating.”

Ragan's innovative approach to language learning is getting attention and acclaim from a wider audience. Late last year, she was selected for a Modern Languages Association Humanities Innovation Grant. In addition, the American Council for Teachers of Foreign Languages recently presented her with the Global Engagement Initiative Award, which is intended to recognize outstanding community-engaged learning experiences within the world languages curriculum at all levels of instruction. Ragan recently gave a virtual presentation to the Knox community about this type of work.

“This will definitely be an experience that I will never forget and will consider one of my highlights from Knox,” said Pineda. “This project gave us the chance to actually make a difference.”

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Printed on Sunday, October 24, 2021