Join our host Vilma Fuentes as she speaks with SF's American Sign Language professor Michelle Freas about all the ways Santa Fe College has expanded its deaf culture curriculum to include the global community. With grant funding from the U.S. Department of State, she and other faculty members have been able to travel and form partnerships with deaf communities in Brazil, Ukraine and Palestine. Did you know our SF students collaborated with students in Qalqilya, a city in the West Bank, to create a virtual online dictionary of sign language? Listen here to learn more, or read our transcripts.
Hello. Welcome to Santa Fe College. My name is Vilma Fuentes, and this is our podcast on developing global citizens. Today I am joined by Professor Michelle Freas who has been a professor at Santa Fe College for the last 15 years. For the last five years in particular, she has been engaged in some really exciting work with people in various countries in the world, in an effort to develop her own intercultural competency and also internationalized her curriculum. So, Michelle, welcome to our show. Tell us, please. What countries have you been engaging with and why?
So since 2014 we've been engaging with Palestine. Brazil, Sweden and Ukraine.
Very exciting. And how does that mean you've traveled to all of these four places?
No. I have had the opportunity to travel to Sweden in Ukraine, specifically Ah, Palestine and Brazil. A little bit different. Palestine we've been engaging through via virtual exchange. So, um Skype or zoom. As technology grows, the exchange has become better. Brazil. We were doing that same thing then we had the opportunity to host a team from Brazil here, and we're able to bring them into our classroom and the students were able to experience Brazilian deaf culture.
So let's talk about Brazil first. When you say you we've been engaging, Who is the we, 1And when you say we hosted a team, who was this team?
So Brazil. It's kind of an interesting story how this all came about. Um, University of Florida was hosting a workshop on Tele Tandem, which is basically virtual exchange. And I was a part of that, but we couldn't find anybody that really, uh, was, I guess, proficient in American sign language or Libras, which is ASL in Brazil. Brazilian sign language. So I was able to They found somebody at UNESP, um, which is the university in Sao Paulo,
right. The State University of Sao Paulo, also one of Santa Fe Colleges partner institutions.
And I was able to exchange with a woman who teaches Libras, which is Brazilian styling, which once again, and her and I began engaging in this conversation on how our sign languages were different, how our cultures were different and we began this exchange together. We brought this over to Santa Fe and started to hold meetings with our students getting students in American sign language of her beginning students in Libras. And then we brought this back to my classrooms, were able to compare sign languages. And then she had an opportunity to come over to Santa Fe College with, um, a team of two people who, um, work with accessibility at UNESP. And so since then, our college has been working on accessibility because of that relationship
and in particular because of this relationship that started really among two faculty members in the foreign language departments. Um, we've now been able to develop the whole faculty professional development series, the certificate on accessible and inclusive education, so we'll leave that discussion for another podcast. But for now, let's just focus on this a ASL exchange. So, um, tell me about Palestine. You know, we could also just call it the West Bank. You know, a territory that's occupied by Israel. Um, how did your exchange with them start? And what was the nature of that exchange?
In 2014 sister cities of Gainesville hosted a delegation from Qalquila, Palestine, specifically the Al Amal Association of the Deaf, and they're Deaf school in Qalquila, , Palestine posted a delegation here in Gainesville. They were able to come over to Santa Fe for two days, and they hosted one class period. In my deaf culture, where they talked about, they discuss just different aspects of their culture. Different aspects of their sign language is they. We also hosted a presentation open to the whole college, and we learned again we learned about their sign language and their deaf culture after that we formed just this exchange, just a series of exchanges where my American sign language four class was able to exchange virtually with Qalqilya, Palestine, and sometimes it was a group of deaf students from the deaf school there. Sometimes it was a group of teachers, and this is actually the very first time I had ever been a part of these virtual exchanges with the group of deaf students or deaf teachers from another country was amazing, so we were a little bit inexperienced then. We began making videos in the media studio, comparing Palestinian sign language with American sign language, and through that we actually just in the past five years we've been on and off had exchanges with them, with Palestine
now, you and your students started a really interesting project with Palestinian colleagues. You I believe you were working on a virtual or online dictionary? Yes. Can you tell us about that?
Yes. So in 2014 we were able to tie this project into one of my classroom research projects where a group of students would come in. Um and we would hold in exchange at a certain time with deaf individuals or deaf students from Palestine. Now, again, this is 2014. This is our first experience doing this. So we, um, ended up making a pretty informal dictionary and sharing it with them. Um, since then, we started this up again formally in 2017 and we were able to hold weekly sessions where our students were exchanging virtually with a group of students in Palestine at the deaf school. And this was probably 20-25 deaf students, middle and high schoolers, and probably about between 15 and 20 of our students from all American sign language courses. We were able to take those topics we were learning, and we would come into the media studio are about a year and 1/2 period of time and formally make an Palestinian an American sign language dictionary, which was the first of its kind. If you were to research Palestinian sign language, there really isn't any research on that. So we were really, really, um, excited about this project because we were able to be the first in helping Palestine to really expose their people their sign language, their differences because they have their own. They have their own sign language. It's not only Arabic signs which many people think it is, but we were able to explain those differences. Um, virtually.
And so these videos that you produced can the public access them?
Yes, they are now finished. We're comparing Palestinian in American sign language. They're fully captioned in both languages, Arabic and English. And yes, the they are publicly accessed.
So, Michelle, why was this research project that you engaged in with your students so significant for the students and faculty at the Steffes School in Qalqilya
for Qalqilya, Palestine? This group of people, they're really not exposed. Um, there people are just starting to become educated on what it's really like to be deaf on the whole culture, the whole language Deafness is quite common there, though. Um, people with disabilities, including people who are deaf, are, um, not exposed in the way to education that people who do not have disabilities would be. So, um, it was very important for us to help these people. Their education system is very lacking with curriculum and materials, so just exposing these people with just their language exposes their whole culture. And they are just like us. They have their own language. They have their own education. They should be their educational quality needs to take attention.
So my recollection from when that first group came here from the stuff school in Qalqilya was what stood out to me is that there seemed to be several layers of marginalization. So you had a Palestinian population whose mobility was constrained by the state of Israel and specifically in the city of Qalqilya, there surrounded, literally surrounded by the Western wall, a large concrete wall. So for many of these citizens to just to goto work in Israel proper, they have to go every single day through a military checkpoint. But then you add to that the fact of being disabled within this community and often being locked out from even your own Palestinian community and and perhaps you throw in, and then your female and deaf and Palestinian in Qalqilya just several layers there. But how How were the female deaf students that you engaged with Were they? Can you tell us a little bit about that and your students impressions of that?
So that was really I think, one of the more eye opening pieces to this project for me. Uh, I think culturally looking at this Palestinian culture. So my students had ideas of what this would be like. And one of my thoughts would be that the girls would be kind of in the background. Um, and the boys would be the head, however, and this community, it didn't seem like that was so we had some girls that took charge and were leaders in this conversation. Um, and they seem to be working together in this whole process. That was really eye opening for me. And a couple of my students really, really thought that that would be exactly the opposite So the females weren't in the background in this. Um, and I also think that the students in Palestine really have had never had an opportunity to speak to other people outside of their culture. And, I think that that was really exciting for them to be able to share their language and really exciting for them that other people were interested in what they were doing, an interest in them at them as a people, and I don't think that's ever happened.
Did anyone from Santa Fe have the opportunity to travel to call Qalqilya?
Yes, Sheila Lucas. She teaches American sign language, but her primary role here at Santa Fe is she's director of the health sciences advising. She was able to travel to, Qalqilya, Palestine in November of 2018. And she became very involved in this project, too, because of her travels there. And she was able to, learn some Palestinian sign language there. We actually were able to hold a a virtual exchange session when she was there, while our students and myself were here. So we were there at the same time. We saw each other. She was able to interpret some things. And the students wanted to ask us some questions of what it was like to be to be deaf here in America. So they were able to tie those experiences together.
And her travel was made possible through a grant that, well, first, through a partnership that Santa Fe College has with Sister Cities International, but also through a grant that we received. Could you briefly tell us about that?
Yes. So this grant was funded by the U. S. Department of State through the Aspen Institute, and this great was called the Stevens Initiative. Grant and Santa Fe College was able to be a part of this grant by holding these weekly exchange conversations between our American sign language students and they're students at their deaf school. And what the amazing thing with this granted was not only hold us accountable and able to meet every week, but also that our students are students here at Santa Fe. Really, it was an eye eye opening experience for them. Culturally, they learned sign language not only Palestinian sign language and able to compare with American sign language, but they really learned a lot about their culture through those signs, and they learned how to communicate through gestures because we could not communicate through Arabic spoken Arabic. So that wasn't really an experience for our students. Didn't exchange is to be able to come back to the American sign language classrooms and teach all the other students the differences. So, for example, one sign that we learned this took us a little while to figure out what they were asking, but they wanted to know how to sign the word taxi. In America, we don't have a sign for the word taxi. We spell taxi in Palestine. They did have a sign for taxi, and this is why many of the students come from outside of Qalqilya, and every week they have to travel. Their parents put them in a taxi and they travel to the checkpoint and they come into the school every week. They do this and then they travel home by taxi. Their parents are not able to come and get them, So taxi is a very important way for those students to travel to school and back in school. Is there life That's where their culture is, what that's where their community is that's where their languages. So we have never really thought about that, and we didn't realize. Here in America, buses are transported on, buses are free. We are our students have street free transportation, even deaf students of residential schools. So we didn't even think about that. So that's just a example of a cultural context and how that was explained to us.
Excellent. Now tell me a little bit about your engagement with Sweden and how you've been able to involve Santa Fe College students in that
so for Sweden. Um, before I became involved with virtual exchanges with Sweden, I was able to become involved through the study abroad program here
that Santa Fe College offers
yes, and the reason that deaf culture became involved. We had a deaf students that went to Sweden in 2014. When she went over to Sweden, she realized that there were many deaf students in one of the cities that the study abroad abroad program visits called, Örebro, Sweden, many deaf students. So after her experience there, in her experience learning some Swedish sign language and the Swedish deaf culture, she brought that knowledge back to the Santa Fe community brought it back to American sign language classes and deaf culture classes and are deaf culture, program and discipline became involved in this. The Swedish Study Abroad program for three years, the deaf culture course or a deaf culture program has been able to, um, be included in the Swedish study abroad program.
Why Örebro? Why that city? Why? Why was there Ah, seemingly high concentration of deaf students there?
So in Sweden currently there in all of Sweden there are five schools for the deaf. Just to give you a context in America, all 50 states have at least one school for the deaf, a residential school where students can go and stay during the week. Um, in all of Sweden they only have five, and they're placed in different areas around Sweden. However, once they graduate from school, they do not have post secondary options in the towns that they live in. All the post secondary options are in Örebro Sweden. And it's just to give you context of where that's at, if you know where. Stockholm Sweden is about two hours west by train, so it's in the
middle about, and all of the deaf students converge in Örebro, Sweden. When they're 15 years old, some of them leave their families. They come and they stay with host families. Um, who also know Swedish sign language where they come and stay in a common dormitory with other deaf students. And there are currently five. Um, they're called gymnasiums. Sort of like vocational options. Postsecondary options for deaf students to be able to attend school.
So your most recent engagement has been with Ukraine? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes. So in March of 2019 a few months ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a faculty exchange and visit Ukraine. However, I'm not really sure how this exchange this program started. Could you please tell us a little bit more about?
Of course, so Santa Fe College has been privileged to be part of U S Department of State funded program called the Community College Administrator Program that has hosted 10 delegations of higher education administrators from 10 different parts of the world in different countries. Um, our guests can learn more about it by visiting sf college dot e, d u slash c c a p. Um One of those delegations in 2016 Ukrainian delegation included a college president who oversees a technical college that serves the highest number of deaf students in all of Ukraine. So that's how the engagement started. So, Michelle, you visited them a few months ago.
So my primary purpose for visiting was to, um, meet with government officials in Ukraine also to meet with deaf communities, to teach them about what we're already doing here for inclusive education, inclusive practices, accessibility, um, different service is we provide for people who have disabilities, including deafness.
And why was this so important for Ukraine?
So in 2014 they introduced the concept of inclusive education in Ukraine and also bringing this to Ukrainian sign language Ukrainian sign language, which was really reintroduced. It was banned in the early 1930s, about 1940
when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union,
correct and was not brought back until 2006 which is very recent. So Ukrainian sign language is just now starting to be recognized as a language for the deaf so and to order to be inclusive. We're talking about Ukrainian sign language, which needs to be formally taught in the schools. Right now, it's informal.
So for all those years that the language was banned or not even recognized as a legitimate language, how did the Ukrainian deaf communicate?
Ukrainians have communicated. Um, they learned sign language through their families. They did not learn sign language in the schools. They were taught orally, which means through speech. So they really used it at home primarily or with each other - deaf and deaf.
Was there any organization NGO? Anything like that that, um, help teach Ukrainian sign language. Even informally,
there is an organization titled Ukrainian Society. The Deaf. That organization was established in 1933 and they really the primary goal for the organizations to advocate for the deaf. Part of that is to advocate for Ukrainian sign language. However, since Ukrainian sign language, which wasn't brought about in the school's, wasn't taught in the schools, it was still hard for Ukraine society of the deaf to teach that now, since it's been reintroduced in the school setting or also in the community, and people are more aware of this language, it's really important for accessibility, including interpreters to be brought into the school's interpreters to be brought into the workplace or to places that we have interpreters available here in the U. S. Such as doctors, offices, hospitals, courtrooms.
So a few months ago, you visited the Kiev College of Light Industry. As I mentioned, the served the highest number of deaf students in all of Ukraine. It's a technical college, Um, could describe for us please how instruction was delivered there for the deaf. Did they have sign language interpreters or and what was? How did you communicate with them? Since I Do, you know, Ukrainian sign language?
No, this is a really interesting question. So, no, I do not know Ukrainian sign language For many people think that sign language is universal, really it's not. There's over 300 sign languages that are documented around the world and Ukrainian signing, which is one of those languages American sign language is very different, however, sign language. Being a visual gestural language is very easy to pick up many signs or iconic. Which there pictoral? The sign looks like the object, so it's very easy to learn. Other sign languages versus spoken language is more difficult.
Could you give us an example, please. For those of us who aren't proficient in ASL or another sign language.
So, for example, the sign for house, um, in the United States, we use, um and actually most parts the world understand this as sort of, I guess quote a universal sign. So for house, um, the sign for house actually looks like the roof and the walls of the house. So
so, like a little triangle shape. And then you go down and you make the shape of, like, a square.
Yes. And even though not all houses look like that around the world, people understand that as that is a house. So if you were to visit Ukraine and you sign that, that's understood by the deaf and understood by the deaf here in the U. S. So, um, it's very easy to pick up those other languages when I visited the College of Light Industry. They currently have seven sign language interpreters at that college, which is an increase from what they had previously. They were also teaching Ukrainian sign language classes so that the students there who were deaf at the college and the students were hearing could communicate together.
And if I could add, this was actually it was a recent development because when we hosted their president here, Doctor Ana Shuska(?) in 2016 She was very impressed by, um, how we serve students with disabilities and the service is we provide. So she went back, started it deepening her collaboration with the Ukrainian Society for the deaf and was able to, um I think they they offered they contributed additional resource is they've offered to pay for the additional interpreters and also started offering free Ukrainian sign language classes.
Yes, So at the school for the deaf since there were silent which interpreters, it was a little bit easier to communicate Where is out in the general population? Um, we had to, I guess, make kind of ah compromise with sign language. They weren't sign language interpreters just readily available at every corner. So with the president of Ukrainian society of the deaf, she is deaf. She knows some. I guess you could call it Universal Sign language, international sign language where it's just kind of a system of gestures such as house and her. And I were able to form that communication compromise between each other. So I would form these gestures into sentences using some American sign language using some Ukrainian sign language that I was learning while I was there. And she would then translate into formal Ukrainian Sign language, which for her deaf colleagues, it was a very interesting process. It it takes a little bit of time when you're translating between sign languages and spoken languages.
But when you were speaking to the students at the Kiev College of Light Industry, I think you've described for me a slightly different scenario of translation, so so you would be on stage. And how are you communicating with them?
So I would speak in English, and actually, when I was there, I decided to speak and sign in American sign language at the same time, just out of respect for them. Even though the deaf population may not know American sign language out of respect for them. I wanted to do that so I would speak in English and sign in American sign language. Then there was a, um, a translator who new English spoken English, and she or he would then translated into spoken Ukrainian. Excuse me. Then there was somebody else that heard the Ukrainian spoken language and would translate it into Ukrainian sign language for the audience who was deaf. So the hearing and the deaf were able to be Really... It was like a collaborative experience.
Uh, was anybody impressed that you could speak two languages at the same time? What? What what reaction did the students there are others that you encountered have about you and you're ASL proficiency.
So it's interesting there because approximately 90% of their sign language interpreters who are hearing, of course, they have deaf parents. There is no sign language training for interpreters formally yet. Um, though the College of Light industry is working on that currently. So I was asked several times, Do you have deaf parents? You must have deaf parents Or do you have a deaf friends that you grew up with? And I I learned in college, just like our students are learning. Now. I start American sign language one in college, just like our students. So it was eye opening for them that we actually had that sort of process here in America and something that they could strive toward.
So when you were in Ukraine, though, you've mentioned to me that you didn't just spend time at the college, you also has some pretty high profile meetings with government officials. Could you describe that?
Yes. So I had two meetings, one with the deputy minister of culture and one with the deputy minister of education and with the deputy minister of culture they were more interested in hearing about how organizational process worked, about how our laws worked. Specifically interpreters, or how are much like the Ukrainian society, the deaf we have. National Association of Deaf. So how that was funded, how that process worked here in America. How could they replicate that or work toward that? They're in Ukraine with the deputy minister of education? That meeting was more about how our educational system worked for the deaf. How are deaf included in education? Because here we have inclusive practices in place where deaf students can attend public schools. They do not have that they're in Ukraine. They only are able to go to specialized schools for the deaf. So explaining that process of how are inclusive education works.
were you nervous?
Absolutely. The deputy minister of culture was the first meeting with the government official that I had attended. And it was a very official room. That was yes. My hands were sweating for sure.
And did these government officials Do you think they learned anything from from you and your experiences?
Yes. So the deputy minister of culture was very interested in what we were doing, and it seemed to already know a little bit about that. It had researched that I also spoke with one of his assistants for a a long time afterwards, after he had the deputy minister, culture had to leave. And we stayed after and spoke for about an hour of how organizations work and so he would go back. And I know he was going to tell, you know, Deputy Minister, about everything we had talked about so they could be more educated. I'm hoping that that, uh that made a difference.
Yes. And although Ukraine in 2019 had new presidential elections as well as elections for Parliament and there have been some changes in government, there's a lot. A lot of continuity will remain, and I suspect that the country's commitment to inclusive education will continue and deepen if nothing else, because they do want to align themselves more with Western practices and European Union practices. Um, so it How have you been able, to Bring this Ukrainian experience back into the classroom? Or how have your students engaged with the Ukrainians, if at all.
So I'm hoping soon were able to start an exchange between the College of Light and Industry. Specifically, possibly their deaf students speaking with our hearing students or deaf students here at Santa Fe College. Uh, we're able to hold a presentation this past week with There was a college wide presentation, part of International Speaker Siri's discussing deaf culture in Ukraine and comparing that with the deaf culture here in the U. S.
Wonderful. So I look forward to seeing what will unfold in the coming months and years. So I'd like to thank you, Michelle, for being so open to all these experiences. Is there anything else you want to share with us?
So when I started here 15 years ago, I never I thought that we would be able to internationalize an American sign language curriculum, and I feel that our students are surprised at the I guess diversity of sign language, but also gaining an understanding and an appreciation for other cultures and learning about other cultures through these sign languages is such as that taxi sign that I gave you from Palestinian sign language little bit ago. Um, and I really think that they're on fire for this and learning more about these cultures when they come into the deaf culture classroom. I don't think that they ever realize that they're going to be learning about Palestinian deaf culture, about Brazilian deaf culture, about Swedish deaf culture, Ukrainian deaf culture now. So I think that that really surprises them. And I think when people think about American sign language, they're not thinking about how that can translate into the global community.
And his American sign. Language only spoken or used in the United States
well, American style, in which is the basis for about 30 other sign languages, so, um, because we've been able to send out many teams from the United States to many different countries around the world are sign language is sometimes used, um, and then they build on that. But American sign language is a basis for theirs. So about 30 other countries you'll see that a lot of times to the international sign. Language is based off of some of the American sign language signs.
Well, I want to thank you for your willingness to explore other cultures, develop your own intercultural competency and global knowledge and help us develop global citizens at Santa Fe. I look forward to seeing what happens in the next few months.