Faculty, staff, and students interpret ceremonies into Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, and Korean
Wednesday, May 1, 2019

In May 2020, Tippie College of Business student Yue Xue plans to receive her degree in accounting and business analytics from the University of Iowa.

A native of China, Xue knows it is difficult for her family and those of her fellow international students to attend commencement ceremonies at the end of each semester. With that in mind, Xue in December did what she hopes another student will one day do for her commencement ceremony: provide interpretation services in Chinese so her family can share in her accomplishments.

“It was meaningful,” Xue says of interpreting Tippie’s December 2018 commencement ceremony into Chinese. “I could help many Chinese parents understand the speech of their children’s commencement ceremony. I felt like I could help some people. I really enjoyed doing that.”

The UI first began interpreting commencement ceremonies into Chinese in May 2014. Since then, ceremonies have been interpreted into Arabic, Korean, Spanish, and Farsi as well. Whether a ceremony is interpreted into a specific language depends on the availability of student, faculty, and staff volunteers.

The effort is coordinated through International Programs by Global External Relations Officer Suyun Channon. The project began with a Chinese international student, Star Shen, who was interested in radio broadcasting and wanted to do a live broadcast of the Tippie commencement ceremony. That year, Shen, Channon, a staff member from the Office of Admissions, and a faculty member from Tippie performed the live interpretation.

The project was well-received by families in China, Channon says.

“They were all very excited,” she says. “They definitely hoped we could continue doing this.”

Channon says she realized after that live commencement broadcast and two more in December that some communities in China did not have access to the high-bandwidth Internet necessary to stream the broadcast. The next year, she switched tactics and brought volunteers to a university recording studio to record the interpretation after the ceremonies were complete. Channon began adding languages in the subsequent years as well.

Since spring 2014, 40 commencement ceremonies—including Tippie’s, that of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Graduate College’s masters and PhD ceremonies, and the College of Engineering’s programs—have been interpreted at least once.

“When I watch these graduation ceremony videos, I am reminded that no matter where you’re from, no matter what language you speak, we were all able to get the same high-quality education and we’re able to accomplish so much,” Channon says. “I think this shows how inclusive our campus is and how inclusive our education system is.”

While interpreters are given a script of the ceremony they are translating, Channon says she lets them decide whether they want to do a word-for-word interpretation or a more informal play-by-play. Interpreters also are given facts about the college and the university to include, and are encouraged to speak about their own experiences on campus.

Ali Al-Jumaili—who earned a Master of Science degree in pharmacy, a Master of Public Health degree, and a PhD in pharmaceutical socioeconomics from the UI—likens interpreting four graduate commencement ceremonies into Arabic to providing commentary on a football game.

“We were commentating rather than strictly interpreting because we wanted to talk about not just the commencement itself, but about the university facilities and services, the city, environment, weather, housing, transportation, and our experiences as international students,” says Al-Jumaili, who now teaches at the University of Baghdad College of Pharmacy in Baghdad, Iraq.

Al-Jumaili says he is thankful for the opportunities and support he and his wife received from the UI and that interpreting commencement was a way of giving back to the university and promoting it to potential students.

“We wanted our Arabic-speaking people around the world to hear about this great university, which has a very inclusive and diverse culture,” he says. “I wanted other Arabic students around the world to come to the University of Iowa, have a chance to complete their studies there, and have a similar experience to mine.”

Gabriela Rivera, assistant director for diversity, inclusion, and student success in the Tippie College of Business, says she feels strongly about the value of interpreting ceremonies for an international audience. She has interpreted four College of Business ceremonies into Spanish in the last two years.

As a Mexican immigrant and first-generation college student, Rivera says she recognizes that the families of international students may not always understand the college experience. However, they can all appreciate the importance of the commencement ceremony. For that reason, making commencement accessible in their native language is vital to the university’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Rivera says.

“It’s important we do this service for the parents so they can celebrate with their student and the entire community,” she says.

Xue says interpreting commencement is just one of many efforts on campus that shows the university embraces international students.

“It’s so meaningful to me personally,” she says. “This program makes me feel like the university is doing something for me, for us, for all international students.”