Hands-on approach to learning

CNJ Staff Photo: Liliana Castillo Paula O’Brien has wanted to be a sign language interpreter since she was 9 years old. “Speaking in sign is sort of like acting it out. You are creating a picture,” O’Brien said.

By Liliana Castillo: CNJ Staff Writer

As a youngster growing up in Plympton, Mass., Paula O’Brien said she attended school with a deaf girl who had trouble making friends because of communication issues. O’Brien learned the alphabet in sign language to talk to her.

“I just spelled everything out. We had fun,” O’Brien said. “Then she taught me signs.”

When they reached junior high, her friend was assigned an interpreter. O’Brien was awestruck.

“I watched her all the time,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I just learned to hang with my friend. Not until I saw the interpreter did I know that’s what I wanted to do.”

O’Brien, 43, is a week away from finishing the American Sign Language program at Clovis Community College along with three of her classmates.

Even though she is a real estate agent, she wants to put her degree to use.

“I plan to take it way further. I want to work in the courthouse or with children in schools,” she said.

The American Sign Language program at CCC consists of 14 classes, teaching fingerspelling, interpreting and sign-to-voice interpreting.

However, due to low enrollment, the program is being chopped to two classes in the fall semester, according to Jan Lloyd, division chair of fine art and communications at CCC.

“The ASL program is such a valuable program,” Lloyd said. “But we have to look at the bottom line.”

Lloyd said upper level ASL classes will be left in the school’s class catalogue and if enough students sign up, teachers have agreed to teach smaller classes for less pay.

“Some that start the program because of how beautiful a language it is, realize how very difficult it is to learn a different language,” Lloyd said of declining numbers. “But there’s an ASL program in Albuquerque which started with 500 and only two graduated, so for being a small community, I think we’re doing OK.”