Piet Koene of Northwestern College

Piet Koene, a Spanish professor at Northwestern College, mingles with colleagues on the Orange City campus. He is leading the college’s rejuvenated Spanish interpreting program, aimed at adult learners with its online-only format.

ORANGE CITY—Northwestern College in Orange City has revamped its Spanish interpreting program for the new school and its enrollment is already más grande.

Professor Piet Koene is leading the program that he said was lacking in participants. With the translator training courses re-imagined as digital-only, he said prospective students will be better served.

“Too many times, individuals couldn’t come to campus for classes. That is why we decided to change the program and transfer to an online format,” Koene said. “That way, we can open up the program to more individuals, and the initial response has been very positive.”

Registration filled up within weeks after the re-envisioned program was announced in April. The student list went from five students who took the course in the spring to 20 for the upcoming fall semester. Almost all additional students are nontraditional, off-campus learners who the online format was meant to attract.

Lisa Whitmore, a Northwestern enrollment counselor who works with adult learners, said the program is part of larger efforts from the college to expand beyond its Orange City campus and young student body.

“Offering the interpreting certificate program in an online modality allows working adults to continue working and balancing life’s responsibilities, while pursuing their education,” Whitmore said.

As the Hispanic population rises in N’West Iowa and nationwide, Koene said the demand for interpreting training also is increasing. The problem: Bilingual speakers are having trouble passing the tests to become a licensed translator. Only 40 percent of those who take the medical interpreter test pass and become certified. The percentage is even lower for the legal interpreting test with only 20 percent clearing the exam.

Koene said the repackaged lessons will offer better instruction by focusing on just one area at a time. The fall semester will teach legal interpreting and spring 2022 will be for medical topics.

“The market demand is out there, but people are having trouble passing these certification exams. That’s why we retooled the program to a single focus of preparing students,” the professor said.

The program is not designed for Spanish learners, but for those who are already fluently bilingual. Whitmore said the courses will hone students’ skills by teaching technical jargon and concepts as well as how to navigate legal and medical systems.

“Legal and medical interpreting is a growing field, and having an easily accessible certificate program to better prepare interpreters for the challenging certification exam will help fill this need,” the counselor said. “This program helps bilingual speakers use their language skills to serve as interpreters; helping interpret for a population more comfortable with Spanish.”

Koene added the specialized effort is needed to bridge the language gap, especially in N’West Iowa. He pointed to the rapid rise in adult learners signing up for the courses as a promising sign for the future.

“That was key for the success of the program. I was very happy to see that,” he said. “It seems like we went in the right direction.”