When Western Piedmont Community College was chartered in 1964, the college vowed to serve as a resource to its community.
That vow remains at the forefront of the college’s mission. That’s why, in 2006, WPCC established its first Interpreter Education Program.
Located only miles away from the North Carolina School for the Deaf, WPCC added the program to respond to Morganton’s rapidly growing deaf population.
As only one of four Interpreter Education Programs in North Carolina – among Central Piedmont Community College, Wilson Community College and Blue Ridge Community College – WPCC fosters an immersion program that gives students hands-on experience.
Through the program, students take general education courses, American Sign Language courses and interpreting courses, in addition to participating in two deaf education teaching internships.
But the program’s true value rests on its teaching design – 99 percent of sign language courses are taught by deaf instructors.
“When a student who knows nothing about sign language comes into their first class, most of them are always in shock because they don’t expect to have a deaf instructor,” said Danette Steelman-Bridges, coordinator of WPCC’s Interpreter Education Program.
“But by the end of that very first class, they can already communicate with that instructor. That’s how effective it is to have a deaf instructor,” she said.
Though Danette currently serves as coordinator, her role with the Interpreter Education Program is much more significant, stretching back to its initial origins. In building the program from its onset, Danette evolved the curriculum into a valuable resource for an often overlooked population.
“For WPCC, the Interpreter Education Program has definitely increased awareness of diversity. For our students, it’s an eye-opening experience professionally and personally,” she said. “And our community has given us so much gratitude for taking an interest in training students in this.
“It’s really helped all the stereotypes that people have about the deaf fall apart.”
As coordinator, Danette arranges extracurricular opportunities that benefit the deaf, the students and the community. A local favorite are ‘Silent Dinners,’ which integrate the deaf community with the Morganton community at a local restaurant. While dining, all participants are prohibited from verbal communication – and instead, can use only sign language.
Aside from these events, Danette said her future goal is expansion.
“We’ve come so far, but we’re still a small program on campus,” she said. “I would like to see enrollment increase so that we can reach out more.”