Back-to-School Supplies Needed: Pencils, Notebooks, and Interpreters–Their First Ears and Their Voice

If there’s anyone who understands the needs of non-English speakers living in Rochester, it’s Susana Boggs, a local interpreter and immigrant. Boggs was born in Argentina to Laos-born parents, who had moved continents for a better life. Their new life in Argentina wasn’t without its challenges, Boggs recalls.

“Growing up, we didn’t have interpreters,” Boggs says. “I’ve come to think, how was my mom able to communicate with people?”

Boggs grew up speaking Spanish and Laotian, but upon moving to Rochester at age 18 at the behest of her parents, she was thrust into a world where she didn’t know the language. Gradually, by taking classes, Boggs learned English. She watched her uncle’s kids, met her husband, Michael, and had three daughters.

Breaking the Language Barrier

Now Boggs helps non-English speakers, who are adapting to a new life in Rochester, and she break the language barrier.

Within the Rochester Public Schools, there are 2,090 students who are English language learners. They speak 80 different languages, and 16 bilinguals—or interpreters—including Boggs, serve them. In Rochester, the majority of those requiring an interpreter speak Spanish, Arabic or Somali. Comparatively, in the smaller school district in Winona, 134 students don’t speak English as their primary language, and speak about two dozen languages total. 

“Our bilinguals are a wonderful group of people,” says Jean Murphy, principal on special assignment and English learner coordinator for Rochester Public Schools. “They build relationships with families and students and help make them feel like a part of the school and community.”

Today Rochester has a vast need for interpreters, and Boggs and her colleagues aim to serve. Boggs plans to attend a back-to-school bash in a neighborhood where she knows families she has served will flock to her. “They like to see a familiar face,” she says.

“They Call Us”

Interpreters serve families in every conceivable capacity such as during conferences, at parent/teacher meetings and even in the home where they see what’s happening in the lives of the student and his or her family. “Parents reach out to us,” Boggs says. “They want to communicate. We’re their first ears and their voice. Any questions they have, any concerns, any news, any excitement, they call us.”

According to Boggs, not having a voice is scary to newcomers. She knows first hand from her own upbringing, having watched her parents adapt to life in their new land of Argentina. “They were basically left to survive on their own,” she says. However, Boggs states that in Rochester, immigrants are welcomed with more robust services than her family was when they moved from Laos to Argentina.

Outside of Rochester Public Schools, other newcomers need language assistance as well and the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Organization  (IMAA) stands ready. The organization has been active since 1984, and works with refugees who are settling in the Rochester area. IMAA helps with housing, employment and sends, for a fee, interpreters to aid with experiences such as health care and dental appointments. 

“Wherever services are needed, we’re the point of contact,” says Bao Xiong, manager of interpreter services for IMAA.

Significant Change

IMAA has 80 interpreters who speak 40 languages. The main languages IMAA provides services for mirror those of Rochester Public Schools—most requests are for interpreters for the Somali, Spanish, Arabic and Khmer languages. Likewise Rochester Public Schools, IMAA staff have noted significant change in the landscape of those served throughout the years.

“In 1984, it was basically just our staff that was doing interpreting in the community,” Xiong says. “That has changed tremendously. Now we’re hiring our own interpreters to do the work. And the program has grown as well.”

Interpreters with IMAA and Rochester Public Schools are required to showcase their language fluency. And Xiong says their IMAA code of ethics prohibits interpreters from giving advice; rather, they’re there to carry a message from one party to another so they’re on “equal footing.”

Harold Scott, principal on special assignment and English learner coordinator for Rochester Public Schools, says, “Interpreters are very professional and have a lot of empathy and compassion. If they see something that needs to be done, they’re very hands-on folks and ask, ‘What can I do to help?'”

Renee Berg is a Rochester freelance writer.