Years ago, Denise May took an adult education sign language class in Havre, and it suited her.
"The language came pretty easily. It made sense. I liked it. And I saw a need for this job to be done," May said last week.
She enrolled in an interpreter training program in Oregon, and after working for a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, she returned to Montana in 1994.
Now, May has been an interpreter at UM for nearly 25 years, and this semester, she was the recipient of the Campus Interaction and Meritorious Job Performance Award for "outstanding work on creating positive interactions with others."
"I think the University of Montana does an excellent job with providing access and accommodation to the students no matter what their ability or disability, and I would say we're the best," May said. "We currently have over 1,300 students who are registered with DSS (Disability Services for Students). That's a lot of students with a variety of needs, and we're able to meet them.
"So that's something to really be proud of."
They might not mention it, but the interpreters can also be proud of their upper body strength and endurance; they can keep their arms up for an hour and a half at a time.
May and UM's team of interpreters work regular gigs such as commencements and State of the University addresses, and upon request, they interpret smaller events, such as play performances. To help students, May said interpreters venture far outside the classroom.
They've gone to rugby trainings, visited garden plots, attended cheerleading practices, landed at construction sites for carpentry students, and interpreted every regular and committee meeting of the Associated Students of the University of Montana when a deaf student served on ASUM.
"We've had students graduate in media arts, carpentry, history, social work, sociology and culinary programs," May said. "So to be able to work across campus in all those departments is just so fun."
The schedules vary based on students' needs. Thursdays, for example, May spends half the day in the classroom and the rest of the time as lead interpreter on administrative functions, such as preparing for classes, writing evaluations, and doing billing (UM contracts extra hours with Missoula County Public Schools).
Typically, UM and Missoula College count at least five students a year who are deaf or hard of hearing, but sometimes, the campuses have as many as 10 in one year, May said. And she said the students stay sometimes four years or six years, and some return for second degrees, and then as alumni to homecomings.
"Certainly, the job is to see those students through all of their years here and through graduation," May said.
May likes watching the students make the transition in college from nervous freshmen to eventually graduates and independent employees in their fields. In elementary and high schools, she said interpreters also play the role of helpers, but that's not true in college, where interpreters simply communicate the information to the students.
"I'm not responsible to make sure they understand the math that was just explained," May said.
The interpreters' code of ethics also means she isn't going to attempt a better explanation herself or dispute misinformation. May said professionals in her field "interpret the message faithfully, no matter if they say the world is flat. Because that's what everybody else is getting."
"We can't edit. My job is to relay that information truthfully, faithfully, no editing allowed," May said.
Daniel Bertsch, a freshman majoring in Information Technology, said May's interpretations help, especially in his math lab. The student from Dixon said he's requested interpreters for tutoring appointments throughout the day and into the evening.
"I have been able to ask Denise for anything and everything," Bertsch said in response to an email through May. "She has worked to provide me with what I need."
One time, May worked with a student who wanted to take a German class. At first, she found the idea to be a head scratcher because she doesn't speak German, but brainstorming yielded a solution. She contracted with a company that functioned like a court reporter and had a remote captionist who was fluent in German. They set up a computer and microphone in class, and the professor spoke in German, and the student was able to read the captions.
That class was the trickiest challenge, May said, and so far, no class or club activity has been beyond the abilities of UM interpreters.
"We haven't found one yet," May said.