A woman outside in front of a building.
Bridget Ferguson interned as an interpreter with the Chesterfield County Office of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission and the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. (Photo by Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: Bridget Ferguson is providing much-needed Spanish interpretation services in the legal system

Ferguson is a student in VCU's Spanish-English Translation Interpretation Certificate program in the School of World Studies.

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As a student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Spanish-English Translation Interpretation Certificate program, Bridget Ferguson has provided language interpretation for limited English proficiency clients in the federal and local justice system.

“It feels really meaningful and rewarding to be able to put my abilities to use in a way that helps people and helps to maintain the integrity of our legal system, especially because there is such a lack of legal interpreters,” said Ferguson, who is graduating from the College of Humanities and Sciences with degrees in Spanish and history in May.

Ferguson transferred to VCU from Virginia Tech with a plan to pursue a career in teaching, having previously worked as a preschool teacher. She decided to minor in Spanish, as she has always had an affinity for languages and studied Spanish in the past.

As she began taking Spanish courses at VCU, Laura Middlebrooks, Ph.D., a teaching assistant professor in the School of World Studies, told Ferguson about VCU’s Spanish-English Translation Interpretation Certificate program, which combines theoretical and applied course work with applied practice in the community and enables students with advanced Spanish skills to use translation and interpretation skills in community settings.

She joined the program after passing a qualifying exam, and took Introduction to Interpretation with instructor Patricia Michelsen-King, a federally certified Spanish interpreter coordinator of the Spanish-English Translation Interpretation Certificate program. Michelsen-King opened Ferguson’s eyes to the possibility of serving as an interpreter in the courtroom.

“Once Professor Michelsen-King brought my attention to the field, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to make a marked difference, and shifted my career aspirations,” Ferguson said. “It felt like I finally found my passion and my calling, and I really dove in head-first.”

She was drawn to legal interpretation, she said, after Michelsen-King described what she called “unseen injustice” in the court system.

“There is a serious shortage of legal interpreters in this country, particularly capable, ethical interpreters,” Ferguson said. “Unfortunately, there is generally no one in the courtroom, besides the interpreter, who understands both languages. This lack of oversight can have disastrous consequences for the [limited English proficiency] defendant.”

Experience through internships

As part of the program, Ferguson interned with the Chesterfield County Office of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission and the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

For the federal office, Ferguson often provided assistance in cases where a client was charged with illegal reentry. She interpreted during meetings in detention centers between attorneys and their limited English proficiency clients, interpreted between investigators and witnesses, made calls to ask Spanish-speaking family and friends to write letters on behalf of clients, translated documents such as plea agreements into Spanish for clients, and translated correspondence between attorneys and clients, family and friends.

For her internship in Chesterfield County, Ferguson was the only interpreter in the office, interpreting between attorneys and clients during meetings, interpreting for investigators and translating documents.

“I am often called upon to go to the courthouse to interpret between attorneys and clients just prior to their hearings, usually to convey plea offers from the prosecutors and determine how the clients want to move forward with their cases,” she said in the fall during the internship. “I also field a lot of calls from LEP, Spanish-speaking clients, and coordinate with the administrative staff to schedule appointment times for these clients. I have interpreted for a very wide variety of cases.”

Michelsen-King called Ferguson a great student and an excellent example of a Spanish-English Translation Interpretation student.

“She is extremely dedicated and comes to class come hell or high water. She has a passion for equal access, and I can see the righteous indignation on her face when she talks about or sees injustices,” Michelsen-King said. “While she did not have the advantage of growing up bilingual, she has greatly improved her Spanish and after a trip to Chile last summer in a study abroad program, she now communicates like a native speaker.”

‘It has all been so worth it’

When Ferguson joined the Spanish-English Translation Interpretation Certificate program, the experience was humbling.

“I realized how much more there was for me to learn to be truly fluent and capable of becoming a legal interpreter,” she said. “I felt very passionately about pursuing a career in legal interpretation, so I made my Spanish language acquisition my number one priority so that I could reach the necessary level of proficiency.”

She started volunteering at the Sacred Heart Center, teaching preschool with a co-teacher who speaks Spanish exclusively. And she started listening to music in Spanish and watching Netflix in Spanish, trying to immerse herself as much as possible. Her study abroad trip to Chile in summer 2022 pushed her “over the edge” into a higher level of proficiency.

“It took a lot of hard work outside of my comfort zone, and some creativity, to get to where I am now, but it has all been so worth it.”

She is also fueled by a desire to help people with limited English proficiency who are facing the justice system.

“Without a capable interpreter, LEP defendants in the legal system do not receive the fair trial (equal to that of their native English-speaking peers) that they are constitutionally afforded as a right. That is really what drives me to do the job,” she said. “I’ve come a really long way since entering the SETI program in terms of my interpreting capabilities, and I would attribute my progress to a lot of practice and dedication, as well as Professor Michelsen-King’s tough love. She has really pushed me, as well as given me a lot of one-on-one attention and guidance that has helped me to hone my skills.”

The best part about serving as a legal interpreter, she said, has been “getting to jump into interpreting in the ‘real world’ in which I can use all that I’ve learned in the classroom to help real people.”

Looking ahead

Ferguson took the Spanish-English Translation Interpretation exit exam in December. The program’s certificate qualifies her for employment opportunities in a number of fields and equips her with the skills needed to pursue specialized certifications, such as for state and federal court interpretation.

She plans on next taking the state certification exam, which will allow her to work in courtrooms. She is also interested in becoming a state- and federally certified interpreter.

After her internship in Chesterfield County wrapped up, she was asked to stay on as a part-time employee.

“I have lived in Virginia my whole life, so I am considering potentially moving after graduation, but would also be happy to transition into full-time employment with the Chesterfield Office; I really love what I do there.”

The Spanish-English Translation Interpretation Certificate program, she said, set her up for success in a future career.

“VCU is the only university in Virginia that offers a program like the SETI program,” she said.
“Although I wasn’t aware of the program before transferring to VCU, it feels like everything really fell into place for me.”