PHILADELPHIA – Deivid Rojas, a senior at Swarthmore College, has waited four years to hear the congratulatory remarks that will come with receiving his degree from the elite liberal arts school.
Now, his Spanish-speaking father will be able to understand them as well: "Felicidades a los recién graduados!" (Congratulations to our new graduates!)
Swarthmore is offering a live, simultaneous translation of Sunday's commencement, where guests will be able to listen to a Spanish version of the ceremony using wireless headsets.
Many universities, including Swarthmore, have long offered sign-language interpreters or closed captioning at their graduations for the deaf and hard of hearing. But translation into foreign languages appears to be uncommon.
Rojas, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when he was 7, said his father is among several relatives he expects to use the service.
"He's someone that's not perfectly comfortable with English," Rojas said. "I don't think he'd be able to enjoy it as much."
Some Hispanic advocacy groups expressed surprise when told of Swarthmore's endeavor, calling it an unusual and welcome development for the nation's growing Latino population.
"They're investing now in creating a campus culture that's inviting and supporting of Latinos," said Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education. "I think that it's really going to pay off for them down the road."
About 13 percent of the 20.5 million college students in the U.S. are Hispanic, up from nearly 10 percent a decade ago.
Among Hispanic-serving institutions, defined as those with at least 25 percent Latino enrollment, there is no data on colleges using Spanish translation at commencement, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities.
Schools including Columbia University and the University of Southern California supplement their main graduations with secondary ceremonies specifically for Latino students. Both events are bilingual.
Swarthmore's student body has grown from about 8 percent Latino a decade ago to 11 percent today. Overall, it enrolls approximately 1,500 students on its leafy campus about 10 miles outside Philadelphia.
Among them is the 22-year-old Rojas, who grew up in Miami and attended Swarthmore on a full scholarship. The progressive school with Quaker roots was the perfect place for him to nurture his commitment to social justice, he said.
Still, he and other Latino students were concerned that their Spanish-speaking parents could not understand communications from the college, on topics from admissions to financial aid. He did not want that to be the case at commencement.
So Rojas approached Maurice Eldridge, vice president for college and community relations, with the translation idea.
Eldridge was immediately receptive. Though the expected need among the 350 graduates was not overwhelming, offering the service embodies the private school's mission and ethos, said Eldridge.
"It was a reasonable extension of services to make such a significant event in the lives of our students and their families more accessible to them," he said.
Swarthmore already had some of the necessary audio equipment and spent about $12,000 to buy the rest, Eldridge said.
Professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, who teaches Spanish and Latin American literature, will translate the ceremony on site.
Despite her fluency and previous experience as a translator, Camacho de Schmidt said interpreting on the fly is hard. She hopes to have copies of some speeches ahead of time.
"I have to work at it and I will have to practice," said Camacho de Schmidt. "But it is something that once you have done it, it is a skill that stays with you, like riding a bicycle."
The audio equipment has the capacity to add channels, and next year the school may provide Korean or Chinese translations as well, said Eldridge. The college will also continue to offer American Sign Language interpreters.
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