Internal Cartography: Our Professional Identity Journeys

Our Professional Identity Journeys

Halle Hamilton, MA and Alissa McAlpine, MA

In this chapter, the development of the professional identities of two interpreters over the course of their transition from interpreting student to interpreter is discussed. This chapter will be written in the form of personal narratives sharing journeys of becoming professional interpreters in both practice and personal-perception. There is a need for sharing personal experience among interpreters that are designed not to get gratification from showing off battle scars, but to instead validate the experiences and emotions that one goes through on their way to becoming a member in the interpreting field. The two parallel accounts simultaneously emphasize the individualistic aspect of professional identity and reinforce that, though the paths look different, many of the themes of struggle, questioning, and triumph are common.


Hi, hello and welcome!

In this chapter, Halle and Alissa, who are graduates of Western Oregon University’s Masters of Interpreting Studies and Bachelors of Arts in American Sign Language (ASL)/English Interpreting program, will discuss the development of their professional identities over the course of their transition from interpreting student to interpreter. This chapter will contain personal narratives where both authors will share their journeys of becoming professional interpreters in both practice and personal perception, synthesis of the common themes from both accounts, and activities that encourage self-reflection. Halle and Alissa believe that there is often a need for sharing personal experiences among interpreters that are designed not to get gratification from showing off battle scars, but to instead validate the experiences and emotions that one goes through on their way to becoming a member in the interpreting field. Sharing these stories, particularly with an unknown audience, is a vulnerable place to be. It has been a challenge to form these stories in a way that feels safe, yet still carries the significance of what is being shared. The ITP that Halle and Alissa both went through puts a strong emphasis on the development of vulnerability and the importance of showing up for hard conversations, and that education is what has allowed this project to continue.

Halle and Alissa hope that by sharing their narratives, they can show interpreting students that they are not alone in their experience and might benefit from the knowledge of some of the tools they have employed in their professional journey. This chapter will also be beneficial to practicing interpreters and interpreter educators. By reading personal accounts of the identity development process, instructors can add two more stories to their understanding of the mindset of interpreting students. Halle and Alissa hope that these stories can help to support interpreter educators in their interactions with students by providing an intentionally synthesized description of the professional development process which may spark meaningful conversations. Practicing interpreters may also be able to find some validation for their own experiences in this chapter, as professional identity development is an ongoing process. It may also provide some insight into the mind of emerging professionals for interpreters who are hoping to take on a mentorship role.

The activities in this chapter are intended to be completed individually and at the end of each section, unless directed otherwise. These activities were developed to help set a tone for reading and encourage readers to reflect on their professional identities in a way that might be new to them.

 Getting to Know Us

One of the goals Halle and Alissa had while writing was to experiment with the look, feel, and set up of this chapter. The development or this chapter began with them freewriting about their professional identity journeys. Once this was done, they noticed common emotions that appeared in both of their narratives, and even showed up multiple times within their own accounts of their experiences. These emotions were then used to guide the writing of the narratives you will see throughout the chapter. While writing these narratives, it was decided that it was important to maintain the conversational tone that was employed during the initial brainstorming sessions in the final product. By doing this, Halle and Alissa hope that while you are reading this chapter you can see their different personalities and how being individuals affected their experiences. For each section of this chapter they have each written a personal narrative statement, which were then discussed and synthesized as a team. In the hopes of clearly differentiating who is narrating which statement, personal narratives appear in text boxes labelled with the author’s name. Since this chapter is about their personal professional identity journeys, they wanted to first introduce themselves to you.

Halle: I’m currently an educational interpreter at the Learning Center for the Deaf in Massachusetts, and before that I worked as an Educational Interpreter in Indiana. I have been working in the field of interpreting for two years now, so I am still very much a new interpreter. I attended Western Oregon University (WOU) for both my undergraduate degree in American Sign Language/ English Interpreting, as well as for my Master’s Degree in Interpreting Studies. I have always loved research, and for my M.A. I conducted and wrote an auto-ethnographic action research paper focusing on my personal growth and development as a new interpreter while working in a K-12 setting. My co-author, Alissa, shares my passion for research. We have gone through our higher education journeys together as two-time-cohort members, roommates, and most importantly friends. We have had essentially the same interpreting education, though we recognize no two experiences are exactly alike. By writing this chapter, I hope that we can explore our parallel journeys of becoming professional interpreters while keeping our individual narratives intact.Reflecting on my journey with Alissa, and now with you, has been an interesting experience. I found it challenging to name my past emotions, identify the reasons I had experienced them, and come to terms with them. After doing this I ended up feeling comfortable enough to write them down and share them with you. While I may have been uncomfortable and the start of this process, I have found writing this chapter to be both validating and cathartic.



Alissa: I am currently working primarily as a K-12 interpreter in Vancouver, WA. I also work VRS and take some community and postsecondary work when I can. In addition to being an interpreter, I am dual-trained as a transcriber and occasionally provide those services as well. This is my first year in the K-12 system; last year I worked freelance and postsecondary. I’m at a place right now of trying things out and seeing what fits. I have by no means “made it,” but I think that the perspective of development from someone who is in the throes of it can be enlightening! I tend to take a more academic approach to things, and heading into my MA program I thought that I would be focusing on linguistics and cognitive processing as my main areas of study. Then as I tumbled through the transition from school to professional practice, I realized the importance of the emotional process, and that kind of took over my research direction. I still have a passion for the more qualitative data sets, but I believe that those can’t be put into practice if we don’t know ourselves first. There is time for all of that later. For now, let’s look a little closer at the people behind the work.~Alissa


One-word “where I’m at.” In one word, describe your professional identity right now.

Interpreters as a Folk Group

When folklore first began to be studied, the groups that shared knowledge through storytelling were often perceived as being less advanced because their societies could not share information through written language. However, now folklore is thought of differently. There are many different definitions of folklore that can range from specific to broad, depending on what groups you are looking at. In general folklore is seen as traditions that encompass a group’s past and present (Flora, 2013). One researcher, Brunuand (1998 cited in Flora 2013), defined folklore as “Something that is orally transmitted, traditional in form, exists in different versions, and is usually anonymous” (p.19). Then according to Abrahams (1971 cited in Flora 2013) folklore typically addresses two kinds of problems. Problems related to social and ethical dilemmas, and problems that address the “physical preservations of the individual and the group” (p.22). This is important information to note, because when Flora was working towards the possibility of labeling the interpreting field as a folk group, he first needed to set and define what folklore is. Flora discerned that by looking at these definitions of folklore, he could consider interpreters a folk group who share specific folklore among themselves. Occupational folk groups describe their folk life using specific jargon, narratives, and skills that directly related to their shared experience in a job community (Flora, 2013). In this chapter, we feel that by sharing our narrative we are contributing to the folklore to our occupational folk group. The narratives that have been compiled for this chapter are stories that we have previously shared orally, and have documented in written English for this chapter.

On Beginnings

Halle: My perception of the interpreting program during the application process and the reality of experiencing it were quite different. Like anything with an application process, my competitive nature immediately kicked in. I have been told that I am very much Capricorn and a Slytherin, so that should give you a good baseline for my general demeanor, values, and motivation. This meant that when I decided that I wanted to apply to this program a year before I applied, I began to take steps to ensure that my application would set me apart from other applicants. I was focused on myself and wanted to ensure that I had a spot in the program. Once advising meetings for people interested in joining the 2017 interpreting cohort began, it became clear that the tone of the program would be one that I was not anticipating. The program was set up in a way that allowed anyone ready to enter the program a spot. There was no cap for the number of students accepted, and if I’m being honest I didn’t quite believe that this was the case until after I had been accepted and met all of the interpreting department faculty. I had anticipated that this interpreting program would have a competitive culture encouraged by the faculty, but in reality, the department encouraged learning from shared experiences and collegial support. The values I have developed and prioritize as a practitioner have been due to these cohort expectations.

At the start of the interpreting program I was feeling excited because Alissa and I had both been accepted, but it wasn’t long before I experienced my first program related reality check. After going through orientation and the first week of classes, I began to realize that while I was a competent signer I really didn’t know anything about the field of interpreting, the interpreting process, and APA style guidelines. With this realization came discomfort, anxiety, and a bit of self-doubt. While I first perceived these emotions as being negative, one of my major takeaways from the program was learning that with discomfort comes growth.


Alissa: I remember the day I got my acceptance letter for the interpreting program. It was spring break. I was in a hotel room in Mexico, just getting back from a SCUBA dive. It was one of the rare times when I had internet access, so I hopped onto my email to check in on the world above water. My heart stopped for a moment: there was an email with the results from my application. The download time on that slow hotel Wi-Fi felt like an eternity, with the universe holding its breath. Finally, the .PDF opened, and I read the first word: “congratulations.” The universe jumped from pause to fast forward in an instant. A grin broke across my face and I laughed with relief. Heart pounding, I showed my parents, who hugged me and shared that moment of joy. Five minutes later, that goofy grin was still plastered across my face, the muscles in my cheeks beginning to cramp with the unaccustomed strain.

But after the initial giddiness wore off, I began to plan for “what if.” Could I double-degree to make sure that if I hated interpreting I would still have a backup? What if all of the horror stories were true? What if it didn’t work out? These fears were intensified as we approached new student orientation. I’d heard rumors about this program. How hard it was. How grueling. How easy it was to be kicked out.

I walked into orientation intimidated. As the professors spoke, I couldn’t see past my fear to the people who truly, deeply wanted me to succeed. I was caught between “I’m not going to be good enough,” and “I’m going to make them think I’m good enough or die trying.” My Hermione mode was in full gear. Then the teachers left us with a group of students who were already in the program to have some time to ask peer-to-peer questions. In this space I had the opposite experience as most of my cohort; I was deeply relieved by the time to talk with them. I had already formed deep friendships with many of the students who were ahead of me in the program, so I was able to ask my questions and have them answered by someone that didn’t intimidate me. From the stories I heard later, the experience wasn’t reassuring across the board. Many other students heard the stories of struggle and failure in that space and became more afraid than they were before. Where I felt the burden of perfection being lightened, the burden of others’ experiences began to weigh down on other members of my class.


Our thoughts about the interpreting program and how to get accepted started well before the application for the program went out. During this time, we both made a point to talk to a variety of people who were currently first year students in the program. This allowed us to gain more knowledge of what the program entailed, make new friends, and further develop a strategy of how to get accepted into the program by looking at different people who were already accepted. We valued planning and being strategic in our actions. We both signed for several years before coming to Western to pursue interpreting, and while at Western we made a point to go above and beyond when it came to our ASL and interpreting course work. Our competitiveness was not directed at our peers, but instead was directed at ourselves. We always strove to show our best work and wanted to show that we were improving our knowledge and practice. We entered Western’s ASL interpreting community with signing experience and a bit of arrogance. When talking about this section of our experiences, we recognized that we both felt capable and like we deserved to be accepted into the interpreting program. The word arrogance is not our favorite word, since it does have a negative connotation and is often paired with words like conceited, self-important, and egotistical. But at this time in our journeys we felt like we were ready and competent, which in retrospect might have come off as arrogance.

While we felt confident during the application process, feelings of self-doubt and the realization that, “I know nothing about interpreting” hit us after the program’s orientation and the first week of classes. There is nothing quite like the power of reading a syllabus to kill the buzz of getting accepted into the program. While we both felt confident in our ASL ability, the majority of our knowledge about interpreting came for the Pre-interpreting Skills Development class we took the year before. This class discussed what interpreting typically looks like, the certifications and education needed to be an interpreter, and started our preliminary reading on the field of interpreting. While this was good information to know before starting the process to become an interpreter, the first week of fall term made it clear that we were only aware of the tip of the iceberg. Realizing that there was so much information that we didn’t even know we didn’t know was quite overwhelming. These feelings of incompetence led to self-doubt, but at the same time it further motivated us to work hard and be successful.

Both of us have a bit of a competitive streak, for sure. But an interesting similarity arose as we discussed our experiences applying for the program: both of us were deeply influenced by the idea of the “gatekeeper.” Knowing that there was someone (or, in this case, a panel of someones) who would be judging whether or not we would be entering the program was a significant factor in how we chose to prepare. We wanted to bring our “A” game. We wanted to show that we deserved to belong. Rather than going into it with the mindset of “I am going to do my best and these awesome people who care a lot about me are going to decide if I’m ready to move forward,” we were both tempted by the much easier story that “these people are out to get everybody. They are going to be judging everything that I am and they will have the final word on whether or not I as a human being am worthy of joining their profession.” Not only was this incorrect, it was dangerous. It made it so much harder for us to trust the process that we were in.

Both narratives stress the disparity between our expectations and the reality we faced as we entered the program. This is not unusual for beginnings. Humans are, by nature, pattern-finders. The ability to predict gives us an edge (Mattison, 2014). We don’t like to go into things without an idea of what is coming. Unfortunately, the “reality” we build up before a beginning is very rarely an accurate representation of what we will actually be facing (Brown, 2015). In this case, our stories were shaped by what we heard from older students, especially those who had not been admitted to the program. Horror stories have a kind of attractiveness of their own, and feed with terrible efficiency into the pattern what Brené Brown refers to as “foreboding joy” (Brown, 2015). In moments of uncertainty, we rehearse the negative endings in hope of preventing their sting if they happen. This doesn’t work, and it prevents us from fully embracing the experience we are having. But it fits so nicely into our pattern-finding nature. This is important to keep in mind as we approach beginnings as professionals. What are the stories that are forming our view of reality? How are our stories impacting others?

Takeaways: It was so much easier for me to believe that I was going into this alone, because then I would have more control over the outcome. But in reality, there were people on my team. People I didn’t even know were there every step of the way to ensure that the results would be most beneficial to me.

The Program

Halle: While starting the interpreting program was exciting and overwhelming, I gradually adjusted to the program’s pace and expectations. When you are going through the classes and trying to keep up with assignments, it is often difficult to grasp that everything assigned is done so with intention. Before you can start interpreting you need to first understand the theory of what is happening in your brain, the ethical decisions that you make while interpreting, and how to train your brain into strengthening its short-term memory. During my first year in the IEP (Interpreting Education Program) I did find myself getting a little frustrated that the closest I got to interpreting was doing various versions of the 10-Step Process (Witter-Merithew, Taylor & Johnson, 2002). However, now that I have completed my undergraduate interpreting program and have been working as an interpreter, I am better equipped to see that building a foundation of knowledge about the interpreting process before trying to start interpreting was vital for my development. For me, this relates back to the idea of unconscious incompetence. If you try to do something that you don’t fully understand, you are unable to recognize the mistakes you are making. For interpreting this could look like unconscious omissions in your work, or the inability to grasp and incorporate implicit meaning. So, take it slow. That’s what I tried to do, but I also wasn’t always successful at that. After getting the basics down in the first year of the program, I was more equipped to get my hands-up and analyze my interpreting practice. Sometimes this meant just being able to talk about how I was feeling while I was interpreting. Was I understanding the topic? Could I understand the speaker or signer? Was I nervous? While other times this meant breaking down my work through a lens of one various interpreting process models (i.e. Colonomos’s Pedagogical Model, Cokely’s Model of Cognitive Processing, etc.) (Colonomos, 1992; Cokely, 1992).On a slightly less academic note, the friendships I developed with the members of my cohort, the cohort above mine, as well as with my instructors helped me to adjust to the demands of being in an interpreting program. While I did not have a close relationship with everyone in my cohort, the friendships I did have were strong ones. I found it helpful to have people I could talk about class assignments with, and to just have a group of close friends who were going through the experience with me. I also had several close friends in the cohort above mine, including my senior buddy. Having friends who had already gone through the first year of the program allowed me to see where I was headed, and they were able to provide me with some much-needed perspective. When going through WOU’s interpreting program you are assigned a senior buddy, who you are encouraged to keep in contact with. I was lucky enough to be paired with someone I had recently became friends with, and we ended up meeting to chat about our lives, the program, and interpreting post-graduation pretty consistently for the next several years. I still consider her a close friend and am so sad that being on different coasts makes it so much more challenging to do consistent coffee dates. As for relationships with my instructors, I was lucky enough to have an interpreting faculty whose goal was for us, as a cohort, to be supported and successful. Because of this I never had to experience “the school of hard knocks” approach that I have heard in many other interpreter’s educational experiences. Having positive rapport with my instructors allowed me to be comfortable asking question, participating in class discussions, and sharing my interpreting work without the fear of ridicule.

Alissa: I thought I knew what I was getting into. I’d already taken 5 years of ASL classes, interpreting is just saying what you hear in another language, right?! Then, in the first term of the program, I had a bit of a reality check. This was going to be a lot of work, and there was a lot more to it than I had thought. To be frank, I had no idea why we were doing a lot of the drills we did. Of course, our professors explained that we needed to build primary skills in memory, language processing, etc. before we could move forward to any interlingual work, but a lot of the time I found myself getting impatient. When were we going to start doing “real” work? In retrospect, I see the distinct logical progression of my education, but it took a long time for me to build the trust in my program that I needed to feel like I really was moving forward, even when it didn’t feel like it. Talking with other interpreters I realize how fortunate I was to have time devoted to learning how to make use of my memory, take effective notes, and read between the lines of a text. It seems like such a simple thing, but really internalizing that my instructors had a long-term plan and wanted the best for me as a professional completely changed my approach to my schoolwork.

ITPs are hard. Like, really hard. And the cool thing about really hard stuff is that it has a unique power to bring people together. The first Saturday of winter term our class had a bonding moment. We had taken 3 months to build trust with one another, then in one emotionally charged class, the tension broke. Vulnerability rose to a whole new level. And many of us left that day with a changed narrative. We were a unit now. We had a community. We had people we could go to and say “dang, this is really hard!” That was a game changer. The very heart of professionalism is that it takes place within a community of practice. That was the moment my community of practice was born. There were countless other moments throughout my journey that reinforced that feeling of camaraderie, that reminded me that I am not an interpreter, I am an Interpreter: one of us. The first time I went to a gathering of professional interpreters and was welcomed, I realized that this was bigger than me. The first time I volunteered at a professional conference and saw how many people were there, fired up to learn more about this crazy thing we do. The first time I presented my research, fully convinced (and hopeful) that no one would care about my study, only to find that I had a crowd of people around my table clamoring to know more. This is bigger than me. And that realization was a huge step in my becoming a professional.


What you just read feels redundant, and there is a reason for that. We both wrote these reflections without reading the other’s or talking about it beforehand, so the fact that we wrote almost exactly the same thing is significant. There is something here worth looking at. For both of us, when we thought back on our experiences these were the two things that stood out. While it definitely won’t be the same for everyone, the takeaways that we held from our time in the program make sense. Our feelings of frustration and later realization of the importance of the beginning work are reflective of the core growth process that we underwent in terms of our process. In the beginning, we thought of the work on a surface level; we figured that the work would be exactly what it looked like. Our instructors knew things we didn’t, and we first had to acknowledge their expertise before building the skills we needed to progress to interpreting work as we had envisioned it. We first had to learn how much we didn’t know.

Our reflections on community seem logical as well, although they may be somewhat amplified in our stories. Both of us are thoroughly independent people. We are good at taking care of ourselves, and becoming a part of such an integrated and necessary community was a new and challenging experience for both of us. We are still highly independent people. We still have times when we prefer to do things alone. But over the course of our five years of training we learned that interpreters can’t operate alone. At least, healthy, productive, happy interpreters can’t operate alone. We learned that “independent” doesn’t mean “does not play well with others.” Interpreter training stretched our expectations of interpreting as a process, a product, and a community, and that stretch is what has stayed with us as we go out into the world.

Takeaways: The people around me are my biggest asset. They have so much more to give than I could possibly try to learn on my own. It’s just going to take some time. Understand that there is intention behind the order of things you learn, and just because your hands aren’t up interpreting, doesn’t mean you aren’t learning.


Alissa: Internship wasn’t at all what I expected. When I started my internship, it was set that I was going to be doing a split internship with equal parts K-12, postsecondary, and community work. The week before I was set to start, the postsecondary and community sections fell through, and suddenly I found myself in a full-time K-12 internship, which was not the interdisciplinary explorative undertaking I had hoped for in my internship experience. That being said, it was a great experience and I learned a lot. It was the first time that I found myself working closely with interpreters that did not have the same background as myself. Differences in views of ethics, professionalism, and interpreting process forced me to think more critically about what I believed. This, in itself, was a beginning; it was the time when I began the development of my own independent professional values, incorporating what I had learned in school and putting them into practice in my own way for the first time.

It can’t be denied that internship was a formative experience for me, but it also can’t be denied that I was disappointed. I didn’t get to have the experience that I’d hoped for. That disappointment was valid, but I struggled to accept and acknowledge that because every story that I had heard was how amazing internship was, or how traumatizing it had been. I felt like I had no right to feel anything but positive when nothing horrible had happened. Looking back on this I realize that the nature of comparison took away the uniqueness of this beginning; my experience began before I even realized it as I internalized the stories of others.

Halle: When I was looking into where I wanted to do my internship I was primarily focused on finding a place where I could potentially see myself living and working post-graduation. I was born and raised in California, and had spent the last four years in Oregon, but I could never really imagine myself in either place. I let my internship coordinator know this and began researching different places that I thought had larger Deaf Communities and interesting potential internship sites. My internship coordinator ended up suggesting that I contact The Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC) in Massachusetts. After a successful Video Phone call with them in early January, I had my internship placement set up and was really looking forward to spring term.Going into internship I was elated to be able to have such a unique internship opportunity in a part of the country that I had never experienced. After having a successful practicum during winter term, I was feeling incredibly excited that I was finally going to be able to experience day to day life as an interpreter. I feel so lucky to have been able to spend my 10-week internship working at TLC. The Learning Center’s interpreting department is special because they had about twenty staff interpreters who work on campus, in mainstream classrooms, as well as in and around the community. The interpreting department works with interns regularly and encourages their interns to take notes during assignments, ask questions, and build quality relationships with colleagues and consumers. Coming from Oregon and entering a Deaf school on the East Coast was quite a culture shock for me. I found that there were regional signs specific to the East Coast and to TLC that I was unfamiliar with, and the general life and signing pace in Massachusetts was a lot quicker than what I was used to. Fortunately for me, I worked with a group of experienced and supportive interpreters who helped me adjust to all the new interpreting settings I was observing and working in. While I was initially intimidated by this work setting and the extremely skilled interpreters I was shadowing, I tried to focus on recognizing that we were at different stages in our professional journeys and not to compare my current self with their present skill levels. Before going on Internship, my junior year senior interpreting buddy told me, “don’t rush the process, you are exactly where you need to be.” This is one of the single most helpful pieces of advice I have ever received, and is something that I find helpful to repeat to myself whenever I start to feel myself spiraling in “I should…” thoughts.


It’s clear that our experiences were largely disparate. We were placed in somewhat similar settings, and that’s just about where our shared experiences end. That’s worth noting, because it’s easy to say “and then there is internship” and assume that “internship” is one distinct aspect of the professional development process in which people have a particular set of experiences. While there are certainly broad-level learning goals for interns, the experience is so highly individualized that it provides a unique opportunity for people to tailor their learning to what they need and where they want to go.

Neither of us approached the internship experience as just another checkbox before graduation; we knew how we wanted this experience to help us grow as professionals. That’s important, because it was a manifestation of our self-analyzed professional identity. Also, it guided the way that we grew over the course of our internship. We both framed our experiences through the lens of our goals, and our identities shifted accordingly.

While these self-directed aspects of internship were important, it was also the place where both of us had our first true exposure to interpreting mentorship. Mentorship is such a key part of internship and professional development. A good mentor-mentee relationship is built on mutual trust, respect, and both parties being willing to put in the work. When these three things are present in a mentoring relationship, the mentee and mentor are willing to share their work, accept feedback, and ask questions without the fear of being ridiculed. For Halle, mentorship was one of the most beneficial parts of her internship. Instead of working primarily with one mentor for the entirety of internship, she was able to benefit by working with multiple mentors. The relationships that Halle was able to develop with her mentors kept feelings of isolation at bay, whereas Alissa’s mentorship relationship focused entirely on skill development, which again relates to the goals held while entering these new phases of professionalism.

Leaving the community we had developed over the past several years behind and moving to a new place to start internship was a challenging transition. We both moved out of the state of Oregon and entered environments where we had no experience. After writing our narratives for internship and discussing them together, one of the main parts of our experiences we discussed was the growth that happens when one is uncomfortable. Transition periods are rarely comfortable, but they are something we feel are important to embrace and lean in to. During our internships we learned about how we handle new and stressful environments, as well as learning how to cope when our expectations don’t meet the reality of the situations we found ourselves in. Halle spoke of “shoulding” on herself when it came to not being able to keep up with her expectations for her skills development, and Alissa struggles with “shoulding” on the experiences she was having on internship compared to the experience she envisioned herself having. One of our most impactful takeaways from internship was that the experiences and feelings we were having were valid, and not to attempt to rush through and avoid transition periods because it is more comfortable.

Takeaways: I wasn’t able to see what I was learning while I was in internship, and honestly the primary growth that happened wasn’t in my interpreting skills. Rather, it was the time when I first had to stand “alone” in my work and my process.

 Graduating and Starting Grad School

Alissa: I never planned on jumping straight into a Master’s program. I hadn’t even planned on getting my MA in interpreting. Throughout my undergrad career I always planned on waiting a few years, then going back to school to get my M.A. in linguistics. Then, in the course of 24 hours in the winter of my senior year, all of that changed. I decided to stay in Oregon and apply for the Theory and Practice track of the Masters of Arts in Interpreting Studies program.

Because I knew that I would be beginning my next classes in a week, graduating with my B.A. didn’t feel like much of a transition. The only thing that changed is that suddenly I felt like I didn’t have an excuse anymore. I had a degree. I was on the path to certification. That meant it was time for me to start taking “real” work. No more excuses for putting it off, now I actually had to do this thing. And I realized that I really had no idea where to start.

Simultaneously I felt like nothing had changed, and everything had. I was still the person I had been a week before, but now there was a document showing that I had completed my introductory training. That conflict stuck with me for months. I felt like it was time for me to start getting out there and working, but I didn’t feel anywhere near ready.

Halle: Graduation really didn’t feel all that life changing for me. I was excited to be done and have my degree, but towards the end of my internship I was really getting into the swing of having an 8:00 am-4:00 pm work schedule. This made graduation feel like just something that needed to happen for me to continue on that path. Several months before graduation, I found out that Western was adding a new tack for their Masters of Arts in Interpreting Studies Degree, and I decided to do it. After I graduated with my B.A. I had precisely one week of freedom before starting the most challenging term of my academic career. Looking back on this experience, it really makes sense that there was such a shift between undergraduate coursework and what is required for graduate studies. However, in the moment I did not have the brain capacity to come to terms with this reality. I was just trying to keep my head above water while I was trying to figure out how to be a student and manage my time when working towards completing an online degree. Summer term was difficult because I was adjusting to a new schooling format, and the subsequent terms were challenging because I had to find a way to balance working full-time and being a full-time graduate student. While this was stressful and at times hard to manage, starting grad school around the same time as starting my first interpreting job made me feel like I was still connected to a community and had a network of people I could rely on.

 Takeaways: Jumping straight into graduate school kept the momentum going, but it really made it feel like there was no change after graduating from the program. For us, the graduate school experience was just another step in training, but it did emphasize the point that milestones in professional identity can be moving targets, and it was worth it for us to move with them.

“Real World” Work

Alissa: It took me months to start accepting regular freelance work. The fear of going without a net was overwhelming for me. I found some work that felt safe and slowly dipped a toe into the water. This was one of the scariest beginnings for me. I knew that I was prepared. I knew that I had strong enough ethics to keep myself and my consumers safe. But that knowledge couldn’t overcome the possibility that I could make a mistake that would have unstoppable ramifications. That possibility, however rare, took on a reality all its own in my still fragile professional identity, and it took a year of carefully accepting work, going through grad school, working with mentors, and participating in supervision to bring myself out of that fear and into a competent, though still cautious, mindset.
Halle: Feelings of imposter syndrome set in when I started working in Indiana. When I accepted the K-12 interpreting job, it was my understanding that I would have colleagues, but I quickly realized that was not actually the case. I was suddenly the district’s expert in interpreting, when in reality I was still a novice interpreter. I felt weird that I was the most experienced interpreter when I only just graduated from a training program and LITERALLY had 10-weeks of intern interpreting experience. I did feel prepared entering the job because I was comfortable in a K-12 setting, was confident in my decision making, and competent in my interpreting, but working in an environment with limited on-site support and with children with severe language deprivation; proved to be quite overwhelming.

 Takeaways: No matter how prepared I was, jumping in and actually doing the work was a really scary experience. The only way that I was eventually able to get over that fear was to start slowly and get myself to do it even though I was scared.

Self-Perceptions: Rise and Fall of Confidence

Halle: During my first year of work, I became acutely aware of the impact that inadequate access to education can have on a student’s ability to understand the world around them. At work I was up close and personal with the lasting effects of language deprivation, and it became incredibly important for me to look at my own interpreting practice to ensure that I would not be a hindrance to someone’s education. For my graduate project I completed an action research paper titled ‘“Ever Since I Left the City”: An Auto-ethnographic Action Research Project on Interpreting in a K-12 Setting” (Hamilton, 2018), that discussed the various ways I worked towards improving my interpreting practice in a region with limited access to physical resources. I completed work samples and analyzed them with mentors I met with synchronously, tracked my use of various ASL features in my practice and documented various social aspect of my interpreting during my workday. Completing this project helped me to intentionally work towards my professional development goals, and encouraged me to keep up contact with mentors even when I was alone in my workplace.

Alissa: At the end of my internship, I was on top of the world. I was more confident in my skills than I had ever been in my life, and I was excited to try my hand at the “real thing.” Then, suddenly, I realized that nearly everything in my life was changing. I was moving to a new home, starting grad school, beginning a new relationship and starting a new non-interpreting job. And I’m supposed to start interpreting “without a net” now too?! I shifted from excited to panicked in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, I had done enough “feelings work” during undergrad to recognize the impact that these changes were having. A mentor of mine (I semi-jokingly say that I want to be her when I grow up) responded to my complex stew of emotions with a valuable insight; she told me that, while moving on is exciting, that place was also a period of mourning. I was saying goodbye to a way of life that I’d held for years, I was leaving the community that had raised me as an interpreter, and I was stepping out of my “student” identity and into my “professional interpreter” identity. She gave me the permission to honor what I was leaving behind, and that was a huge part of my journey forward.

For me, the discomfort of moving out of my student skin manifested as an intense, overwhelming fear of making decisions at work. I couldn’t think of any choice in any given situation as “ethical.” Is it ethical for me to leave an assignment after both the Deaf and hearing consumers told me they were done and I could go? I DON’T KNOW!! (Literally. I cried in my car for 15 minutes about that. That was a true story.) That story happened three months after I graduated. In the months before, I had been too afraid to even take work. Confidence was completely absent. Fortunately, at that time I was enrolled in grad school and starting to think about the topic for my action research project. This jumped to mind as a perfect topic for me to study. I decided to write a piece entitled: “But who am I to know what’s right?! A resilience-based approach to ASL-English interpreter self-concept and ethical process.” As I conducted this study, I realized that there was a clear pattern to my feelings of confidence. I had expected that as I gained experience, I would also gain confidence, but I was wrong. For me, confidence comes in waves. It plummeted suddenly after I graduated with my B.A., but then rose to higher levels than it had been before. And, even more importantly, a sense of pride in myself and my own work did not arise in my data until AFTER that plunge. It was necessary for me to navigate that dark space in order to step more fully into my professional identity (McAlpine, 2019).

Unconscious Incompetence/False Confidence

Alissa: I remember sitting with a group of friends one day in the first year of our ITP. In class we had discussed how it can be even harder interpreting in front of ASL students because you are more likely to receive unsolicited feedback. We laughed about some stories that had been shared that day, but then started to think back on our own stories. I remembered being in that same space myself. When I was near the end of ASL III, I thought I was hot stuff. I knew this sign language thing. I knew it all. What more could I possibly learn in the next two years of classes? Looking back on what I had thought at that time in my life, I was mortified. I almost didn’t say anything, but I decided to go for it. I mentioned that I remembered being in that same thought world where I might have considered offering advice to a working interpreter (thank goodness I didn’t happen to have access to any working interpreters in my life at that time, now I can only hypothetically make a fool of myself). To my amazement, some of my friends shared similar stories. I wasn’t the only one who had been so extremely, incorrectly confident. We laughed about how much we didn’t know back then, and lovingly began to refer to that mindset as “the middle school effect” as we remembered having a similar outlook on life in general between the ages of eleven and fourteen.Little did we know that this is actually a researched phenomenon. It is referred to in literature as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, after two scientists who published a paper on it in 1999 entitled “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” In essence, their study found that it is possible to have enough experience in a particular subject to believe that you are more competent than you actually are. In this case, people are more likely to rate their own work as more effective than it is. They literally can’t see the mistakes they are making. Not only that, but they tend to rate expert work lower in this period as well. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it just means that they haven’t yet learned enough to realize how much they don’t know.This phenomenon makes sense when viewed through the lens of the four phases of competence as described by the instructors in our M.A. coursework. The first phase is unconscious incompetence. In this phase, people don’t know enough about a particular practice to even recognize that they are not skilled in that area. The second phase is conscious incompetence. At this point, people recognize that they do not have the skills or knowledge to do well at something. In my case, my Dunning-Kruger period fell at the end of the unconscious incompetence stage. I was starting to learn about ASL, but I really didn’t know how much I didn’t know. As I jumped into conscious incompetence, I realized “holy cow I know nothing and I’m very much embarrassed by my fifteen-year-old self.” After that comes unconscious competence. This is where I was at when I was too afraid to take work after graduating. I was competent. I had the skills I needed to do entry-level interpreting work. I didn’t think that I did, though. I thought that I was still incompetent and my humiliation at my egotistical idiocy when I was fifteen made me want to make sure that I didn’t let myself go there again. The final stage is conscious competence. It’s when a practitioner realizes that they are qualified to do what they trained to do. It doesn’t mean they know everything, and it doesn’t mean they are perfect. It means that they have an accurate view of what they know.

Takeaways: The development of confidence is an indicator of professional development, but looking back we learned that our confidence level was not a direct indicator of our competence.


Draw a timeline of how you have perceived yourself over the past year. Two? Ten?Draw a picture of a mirror. Inside that mirror draw or write how you perceive yourself. Outside the mirror draw or write how you think others perceive you. What do you notice?What is your inner monologue when: You do something really well? You fail at something? Someone compliments you? Someone criticizes you? You’re about to do something scary?


Halle: Over the past few years I have experienced a few different kinds of isolation. During my time at WOU I went through a period of self-isolation during the winter term of my junior year in response to a death in the family that was perpetuated by my undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, then while I was away on internship I was isolated from the rest of my cohort, who mainly chose to stay in either Oregon or Washington. Luckily during my internship I had tremendous amounts of support from the people I was working with, so I never really felt alone. However, feelings of being truly isolated started to hit me after I moved to Indiana. I was the lone interpreter in my district and the Teacher of the Deaf was unfortunately more of a hindrance than anything else. Every day after work I felt stuck and exhausted because of the high demand low control nature of the environment I was working in (Dean & Pollard, 2001; Schwenke, 2012; Schwenke, Ashby & Gnilka, 2014).

Alissa: Isolation is an interesting stage for me. I’ve gone through a few periods of isolation so far in my journey. The first one I can think of is during the second year of my ITP, before going on internship. I suddenly found being around other students exhausting, and slowly withdrew from my classmates. I was ready to build my own identity, and I felt like the collective stress that my class was feeling as we approached internship was more hurtful than helpful. Then, internship itself was an even more drastic shift into isolation. I moved to an area where I knew absolutely no one. I moved in with strangers, I met my mentor on the first day of internship, my best friend was a time zone away, and my teachers were no longer a constant presence in my life. I’m bad at keeping in touch with people. Ask anyone. While I was on internship I was flying solo. I had a couple of people that I kept in touch with, but I spent a lot of time alone over those three months.

It was tough to feel like I was on my own for the first time, but it was also tremendously important for me. I spent a lot of time reading, walking, and thinking about how I was responding to the changes in my life and the situations I was facing at work. This period of isolation provided me with much-needed time for self-reflection.

The second period of isolation came after I graduated with my M.A. I moved to a new town and started my first full-time interpreting job. Yet again, I felt like I had to completely re-acclimate to an entirely new situation. Only this time it wasn’t just for three months. I’m still trying to build a new community here. I have friends and colleagues, but I definitely don’t have the same kind of robust network that I had while I was in college. Maybe this is just how “adult” life is, I don’t know yet. In a way, I’m still in a period of isolation. I am the only interpreter in my school, and one of two staff interpreters in my district. For the first time I am completely on my own for the long term. That transition forced me to find my voice. I have realized that, since I’m the only one, I am going to have to speak up for myself. I don’t have anyone to follow along behind anymore. The majority of the staff at my school have never interacted with a d/Deaf child before, let alone an interpreter. I’ve had to come into my element and learn to speak out.

Reaching Out

Halle: After a few weeks at my job in Indiana it was apparent that I needed to make a change or risk getting burned out my first year on the job. My first attempt at reaching out lead me to register for Indiana’s Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s annual conference in the hope of meeting interpreters from my area. Unfortunately, I came to the realization that none of the interpreters who had attended the event lived and worked within an hour of where I did. My second attempt at reaching out was a lot more successful. Since I graduated from WOU I had the opportunity to be involved in a program called Professional Supervision for Interpreting Practice (PSIP). This was a one-year program for new graduates where we were able to partake in monthly synchronous supervision following Dean and Pollard’s (2001) Demand-Control Schema (DC-S) framework. Since I was involved in monthly supervision, I was able to present a case about some of the challenges I was facing at work. Talking about my experience with trusted colleagues helped to validate my feelings and provided me with different ideas about how to handle the situation. I also was able to take advantage of the fact that I was a graduate student, this allowed me to talk about my experience and develop an action plan of how to continue to develop my skills in an area with limited resources in the form of my graduate action research project. Another thing that helped me was remembering that everything is temporary, this thought led me to make the decision that I would only stay in this position for a year.

Alissa: I never really liked asking for help. All that changed in my second year in the program. Winter of 2017 was a dark time for me, and I found myself slipping professionally. I knew that what I was doing was unsustainable, and I finally reached out for help. I went to a teacher who has now become one of my most trusted confidants and asked for advice. She didn’t give it at first, which frustrated me to no end. Instead she listened to my whole story, and as I told it I unfolded pieces that I hadn’t even noticed before. I realized that relying on others is necessary, and tremendously powerful. That lesson spread and I began seeing a counselor to continue exploring my personal and professional growth. Ever since, I have acknowledged the power of my community in times of need.

Even so, it can be hard to realize when that time is. Recently I have been faced with a professional situation that has been difficult and painful to navigate. In the beginning I reached out to mentors who were able to support me and provide some advice, but when their suggestions and every other solution I could imagine failed and the situation became steadily worse, I gave up. I kept on trying new things but I stopped reaching out. I didn’t want to be annoying. I didn’t want people to think I just wanted attention. I didn’t want to be needy. I dealt with it on my own as long as I could, but when it got to the point where I was in tears at work more often than not, I knew that I was in trouble, and reached out again. The support that I got from friends, family, mentors, colleagues, and professional counselors lifted a huge burden from my life. The situation is still hard, but I know that I have people on my side, and there are people now who know what is going on and check on me to make sure I’m ok. I have also become more vocal at work in advocating for what I need. Even though I know how powerful my community can be, it still took me reaching the point of no return before I was willing to become fully vulnerable and share what I was experiencing.

Takeaways: There was an interesting dichotomy here that growing as a professional required both isolation and community. Both were enlightening and allowed for different kinds of growth, and I’m sure that I will continue to cycle between the two as I move forward.


Think of a story that you have heard often about interpreting as if it were a fairy tale. Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? What is the moral? Why do you think that story is being told?

Where Are We Now?

Halle: In September of 2018, I packed up my car and drove twenty hours to get from Indiana to Massachusetts to start my new position as a Staff Interpreter at The Learning Center for the Deaf. When writing this chapter, I had only been at this job for around three months, but if I had to choose one word to describe how I feel about my life right now, I would say that I am content. I am working in a place that allows for variety in my workday, has a team of supportive and knowledgeable interpreters, and is challenging in a manageable way. Of course, there are days that are more trying than others, but I feel like I am better able to manage a situation because of my experiences up until this point, and because I have a team that I trust behind me. In the three months that I have been in Massachusetts, I have already started to see improvements in my interpreting practice, and I am looking forward to see what the future has in store.
Alissa: The first term of the M.A. program, I adopted a new motto: “Something’s gonna happen.” I’m a planner. I love to have everything predictable, established, and, preferably, color-coded. As I entered M.A. classes and professional work, I began to realize that my life was probably done being planned to the second, at least for the time being. That was ridiculously hard for me. Reminding myself that even though I couldn’t be sure what was coming, something was going to happen helped me “unfreeze” and get myself moving again. Embracing “something’s gonna happen” led me to accept a job offer and a sudden opportunity for housing. As I’ve transitioned into full time interpreting work, holding onto that motto has helped me tremendously. As a person who does not naturally “go with the flow” (I’m more stone than bubble), it’s still possible for me to manage the ever-changing nature of interpreting work. It just requires another step in the professional identity development process; I’ve had to learn that a professional can modify their choices and plans while still maintaining composure and “control” over the things they need to influence. We all have roadblocks during the development of our identities, and that was one of mine. As of now, I’m (somewhat) comfortably navigating the ebb and flow of professional life, and continuing to learn everything that I can!


The similarities between Halle and Alissa’s experiences is certainly amplified by their studying together, but they predict that their readers will be able to find pieces in the reflections above that resonate with their own experiences. Halle and Alissa both experienced struggle, triumph, loneliness, confusion, and connection as they stumbled and glided through the journeys that led them here. These are not unique to their stories, nor are they unique to the growth of new interpreters; they are inevitable parts of life. It is Halle and Alissa’s hope that the readers will find the common threads tying their experiences to the ones they read above and extend those threads to others, in turn creating a web of connection that can serve to further unite our field. For mentors and educators, it is Halle and Alissa’s hope that this chapter sparks some fruitful discussions between you and the young interpreters with whom you work. To all of you, whether or not you found something in this chapter that felt like something you have experienced, know that your experience is real, it is valid, and it is important. As Brown (2015) says, “disconnection fuels disconnection.” Sharing stories is a significant step toward a community of collective growth based on mutual respect and trust. Those with whom we work have to know where we are coming from in order to join us on the path forward. We’re all learning. We’re all growing. We’re all developing our professional identities. Let’s tell some stories.


Create a map of how you got here. What challenging terrain have you seen? What amazing landmarks do you remember? Share your map with a partner. Can you read their map? Did you visit any of the same places?

Note for Instructors

Thank you for considering using our work in your class. This chapter is largely focused on exploring some common stages of identity development. The conversations that emerge from this chapter are likely to be very different among students at different points in their training. The activities listed in the chapter are designed to supplement the reading and support further thinking, but they are by no means necessary. Feel free to supplement with your own activities (if you come up with one that is particularly effective, go ahead and send it our way and we will add it to the chapter for future instructors to use!) There is a possibility for vulnerable stuff to come up when students work through this chapter, and it is also possible that conversations will be fairly surface-level if students aren’t in a place where they are comfortable sharing with one another. Either one is fine. You’re awesome!

About the Authors

Halle Hamilton, M.A.

The Learning Center for the Deaf

Halle Hamilton is currently an Educational Interpreter in Framingham, Massachusetts at the Learning Center for the Deaf. She received both her M.A. in Interpreting Studies and her B.A. in American Sign Language/ English Interpreting from Western Oregon University. Halle values gaining experiences by working with individuals in various Deaf communities, because of this, she has lived or worked as an interpreter in California, Oregon, Indiana, Washington, Massachusetts, and Ghana. She has been to Ghana on two occasions, her time there was spent working with a team of interpreters facilitating short-term sign language interpreter trainings at the University of Education in Winneba. This experience reinforced Halle’s interest in interpreter education, reflective practice, and self-lead professional development.

If desired, her action research project “Ever since I left the city”: An auto-ethnographic action research project on interpreting in a K-12 setting, is available at:


Alissa McAlpine, M.A.

Vancouver Public Schools

Alissa McAlpine is currently an Educational Interpreter in Vancouver, Washington for Vancouver Public Schools. She also does VRS and Community work from time to time. She received her MA in Interpreting Studies and her BA in ASL/English Interpreting, both from Western Oregon University. Alissa is currently the co-chair of the Membership Committee for the Oregon chapter of RID. Alissa has a passion for research and conducted her Master’s Action Research project on the relationship between self-concept and ethical confidence in new interpreters. Alissa is deeply committed to the development of her own interpreting practice and the cultivation of the next generation of interpreters.


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Integrated and Open Interpreter Education Copyright © 2019 by Halle Hamilton, MA and Alissa McAlpine, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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