Back to High School: Career Talk for Kids

Have you ever thought about sharing your profession at your local high school? Sound like a good idea? In Me, You and the Next Generation of Interpreters on the NAJIT Blog back in September (, Kathleen Shelly said, “…wouldn’t it be great if more of us could reach out and do something simple like this to encourage the next generation…”?

My invitation to speak

I got an unexpected inquiry from a judge at the court where I am a staff interpreter. He had me approach the bench at the end of a session, and sheepishly asked if I was a native Spanish speaker. For a split second, I was worried that he was about to lay into me about a mistake or something. When I told him my story of not being a native speaker, and how I learned and polished my language skills enough to be a certified interpreter, he explained. Apparently, his son is taking Spanish in high school, and the teacher was looking for somebody to speak to his classes about using Spanish in a profession other than teaching. After further discussion and connecting me with the teacher, the wheels were set in motion for a long-time dream of mine: the chance to inspire some kids to follow my career path.

The school

There are two high schools in the area where I was to speak. One of those, actually, is where my own kids attend. There is such a huge population of Spanish-speaking kids that the talent show last year had several large banda (a genre of Hispanic music) groups competing. The school I would be visiting belonged to another district, but was only about 2 miles down the road. What I didn’t know at the time was how few heritage speakers of Spanish were going to be hearing my talk.

 The presentation

After extensive discussions, the teacher and I decided that he would have the kids do a homework assignment beforehand about the interpreting and translating professions. Therefore, my talk would focus more on the wonders of becoming bilingual and bicultural. My assumption was that the knowledge of language and culture would vary, so my mindset was to find ways to introduce them to things they may not be learning in class. I included information about indigenous languages, a bit on the differences among generations of immigrants, and views about the extent to which we might expect to lose our native cultural traits along the way. It was a lot of fun to share some of the culture shock I went through in my early years. In the end, the goal was for a professional from the real world to share and encourage those who might pursue a language career, and to raise awareness about language and culture among others.

The audience

To my surprise, when I asked each of the groups how many of them spoke Spanish at home, the hands raised were probably in the range of 20% at best. Because of the proximity of this school to my kids’ school, it was much lower than expected. What really struck me, however, was that when the examples given were something that the heritage speakers could relate to or knew about, they were extremely shy in speaking up about it. Could it be they were embarrassed? Was being bicultural not embraced by their peers? What a difference from the school down the street.

The reaction

I must preface this part by saying that I was very comfortable going in. I have taught college-level interpreting classes for over 15 years, and have no problem speaking in front of a group. This particular crowd, unlike those I’m used to, was more of an “unwilling” audience. With the exception of a few, the students were in Spanish class because of graduation requirements, not because they were fascinated by the language. How different that is from an adult who is pursuing a career and taking the exact same class! Although the students were receptive, the reactions to what I had always known to be crowd-pleasers were less successful than I expected.

A look back

When I followed up with the judge who originally referred me, he told a story that was quite similar. He said that after we talked, he decided he would take a day off and go speak to kids in that very same school, in government class, about the judicial system. An experienced professor himself, this time, the goal was to make the judicial system “come alive” for the next generation. In reflecting on his experience, he, too, noted a huge difference in the adult audience he’s accustomed to and a group of high school kids. Among other things, we agreed that even attempts to throw in relevant examples from pop culture, reactions and receptiveness had a lot to do with audience demographics and the simple fact that they weren’t necessarily attending our presentations by choice. At the end of the day, our visits were both a success and a learning experience, and we were truly enriched as professionals.

Know your audience

One of the biggest takeaways for me was, as I said above, that the audience at a high school may not be what you expect. The reason an audience is brought to a presentation (requirement, choice, interest, curiosity) must be kept taken into account in planning, and perhaps even openly acknowledged. In my audience, besides the fact that the school had a very low percentage of heritage speakers, the level of Spanish that these kids were expected to achieve by the time high school is over is very different from what you might see in a college class. Students whose Spanish needs improvement in order to reach the level required to be an interpreter will usually have a fully conversational knowledge of the language; it follows that a younger crowd would be even more limited. Knowing the specific language skills of your audience can make a big difference in a talk about interpreting or translating. Even a discussion on culture has close ties to language, and the speaker must take that into account.

Teaching experience helps

Part of my presentation included a few short video clips. I was really excited about sharing them, especially one that showed a family speaking an indigenous language from Guatemala. Guess what? The videos didn’t work. There’s where my experience as a teacher helped a lot. I was able to modify my presentation on the spot and still impart the information. Getting up in front of an audience with a perfect presentation is the ideal, but often not a reality.

Be your best

It’s pretty likely that the audience will remember something about your presentation for the rest of their lives, if you’ve made it interesting. However, there will likely be a few who will truly take it to heart. Be at your best and show the most positive side of the profession. This is not the time to go into the frustrations that you might experience on a daily basis, because your lamentations are going to stand out and could cause these inexperienced minds to make assumptions that you didn’t intend. Dressing like the professional, being on time, attempting to connect with the kids and showing your exemplary speaking skills are something your colleagues will appreciate too. Not everybody who works as an interpreter or translator can get out there and present, so it is incumbent upon those who can to represent all of us in a positive light.

Like Kathleen, I encourage all professionals to talk to kids. Get a little reading done on how to present to your target audience, keep an open mind and you never know who you could encourage or inspire! When thinking about doing a presentation to this particular demographic, do keep in mind that it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s not about just showing up and talking, because you could be surprised, like the judge and I were, that what you have to say could go flying over the kids’ heads if you’re not prepared or agile in adjusting your talk to meet them where they are. Over the years, countless students have gotten back in touch with me to share what they feel I added to their career paths, and that is the reward that inspires me to continue to give my best to future students.

So, what are you waiting for? Surely there’s an opportunity out there for all of us!

Additional reading: Excellent advice and examples!

“Presentation Challenge: How To Successfully Talk To Teens – And Survive!” by Dr. Jim Anderson

“Tips for presenting to young audiences” by Jim Endicott

“The Adolescent Brain –Learning Strategies & Teaching Tips”

4 thoughts on “Back to High School: Career Talk for Kids”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    One of my favorite yearly activities was giving a day-long presentation at my daughter’s schools. I would stay in one classroom and the groups would just file in and out.

    The responses from the kids were amazing, and from grade to grade they had different depths and focus.

    Gotta do it again. Thanks, Jennifer, from bringing back nice memories and renewing my motivation.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Gio! Indeed, it was a great experience that I’d like to repeat. The more I think about this issue, the more I realize that even if we’re not inspiring the next generation of interpreters, at the very least we’re raising awareness for kids who may someday be using our services or providing us with great new technology to aid us!

  2. Al Navas says:

    Inspiring, and brilliant. Jennifer. Thank you for sharing an amazing personal story!

    I wonder if NAJIT will be willing to pick up on this experience and start a pilot initiative in various areas in the U.S.? It would be a wonderful way to teach about the life of a professional interpreter; it will also provide crucial information about the reason we interpret, to people in the communities where the pilots are conducted.

    Such an initiative would require volunteers, focus, and dedication…

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Thanks, Al! I think there’s definitely a place for some sort of profession wide “share your story” day. Many of us enjoy holidays that schools do not, and that would provide a perfect opportunity to get out there and speak. In any event, sharing about the profession is part of being a professional and loving what we do!
      🙂 Jen

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