May is Better Hearing and Speech Month

  Wednesday, May 25, 2022
  Around Campus

By Karen Villarreal

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Seven students comprising the first cohort to graduate from UTRGV’s American Sign Language Interpretation (ASLI) Bachelor of Science degree program are poised to join a limited, in-demand group of interpreters in the Rio Grande Valley. 

The program launched in 2020, and the graduates are now preparing to take their certification exams to officially join the fewer than 40 certified, professional interpreters to serve more than 10,000 people who are deaf in the Rio Grande Valley.

Dr. Brian Cheslik, assistant professor and program coordinator for the ASLI degree program, said he is proud of the students because they are leading the way to help meet the needs of the deaf community. 

“ASL is a formal language,” he said, “and interpreting is a profession ­– a new one, but it is not only a volunteer opportunity.”  

  • Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 24 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Texas has the second-highest employment of interpreters and translators, with 5,420 positions held as of May 2021.  They serve a total population estimated to be more than 3.8 million people, based on figures from the 2005 National Health Interview Survey and 2005 U.S. Census Bureau population figures for Texas.


Ana Lilia Hernandez, 23, one of the seven inaugural students who graduated May 14 from the ASLI program, said her family is inspired by her chosen career.  

“They know there’s a need for the job I’m doing,” she said.  

The first first graduates of the ASLI program are: 

  • Alexis Exinia, of Harlingen 
  • Ana Lilia Hernandez, of Pharr
  • Kaitlyn Morales, of Brownsville
  • Cristela Garcia, of Edinburg 
  • Lizeth Garcia, of Monterrey, MX
  • Delia Landeros, of Mission
  • Rebecca Villareal, of Brownsville

“I’m honored to be part of the first cohort. It’s a responsibility to show what the program can do and how it impacts students,” Hernandez said.  

In a way, her cohort was the “trial” group, serving as a guide for what could be implemented to improve the program.  

“Even though we’re a small group, we’re all proud to know that we’re part of something that the university was able to accomplish,” she said.  

She also feels the pride of meeting an educational goal that honors her entire family.  

Her parents were the first generation to graduate from college, and most of their siblings completed some high school.  

“With my family background, being able to have higher education means a lot to me,” she said.  



Hernandez, who lived in Mexico until age 8, said a deaf childhood friend who taught her some sign language inspired her to pursue her passion for communicating with her hands.  

Before the ASLI program became available, she was pursuing a degree in Rehabilitation Services with a concentration in deaf studies, as it would give her a way to interact with and help the deaf community. 

She changed her major to ASLI as soon as it became available. It offered her new opportunities, she said, like shadowing interpreters through an internship with Eric Cardenas, lecturer and Undergraduate Curriculum Coordinator for the ASLI program. 

“As a student trying to pursue that type of career, it was like a dream come true because that was my original goal,” Hernandez said.  “It was a great experience.” 



 Alexis Exinia, 21, also a member of the first graduating cohort, knew some basic ASL before changing her major from Early Childhood Education to ASLI. She had been fascinated by ASL interpreters since high school, when a classmate in her driver’s education courses required them. 

She wanted to get more involved with the deaf community after attending some events through an ASL class taught by Gloria Guererro, part-time lecturer in UTRGV’s ASLI program.   

She now plans to get certified to interpret for individuals needing ASL translation in law and medicine.   

“I also want to interpret at community events in the Rio Grande Valley, when needed,” said Exinia, who is from Harlingen.  



Cheslik said that, while volunteer interpreters are common at community events and churches, they often are not certified professional ASL interpreters, who are trained to handle specific situations.  

“First-responder interpreters, for example, work through an agency that bills the cities that hire them,” Cheslik said. “There’s a code of professional conduct that professional interpreters have to adhere to, synonymous with ‘do no harm’ in the medical field. This includes ethical boundaries and confidentiality.” 

‘‘I’m honored to be part of the first cohort. It’s a responsibility to show what the program can do and how it impacts students.
– Ana Lilia Hernandez Inaugural ASLI program graduate’’

Texas uses the Board for Evaluation of Interpreters Certification Program, which has three levels of certification: Basic, Advanced and Master.

“Within each there can be levels as a means of scoring signing skill,” Cheslik said. “Then, once an interpreter obtains one of those certifications, they can obtain additional specialty certifications for educational, medical, legal and psychiatric settings.” 

Hernandez plans to get certified and get her license in interpreting, continuing her studies until she reaches the highest level. 

“Level three takes a lot of practice,” she said. “You have to know your content, have skills, be well-prepared and practice ­– which is most important.”  

Exinia said her parents are proud of her studies and understand the opportunities she has now.  

Her mom ­– who was the first to graduate in her family – at first was unsure how Exinia would be able to make a career out of interpreting.  

“Now, they see that it’s possible and they think it’s awesome that I learned a third language,” she said.   



While ASL is Exinia’s third language, she does not feel her command of Spanish currently is strong enough to interpret to ASL and back – though she plans to keep studying to get to that level.  

“I want to learn more languages, too,” she said.  

And Hernandez, who is graduating with a major concentration in trilingual interpretation with Spanish translation and a minor in rehabilitation services, is among the smaller group of ASL interpreters who can facilitate communication between English, Spanish and ASL speakers.  

“It takes a lot of work,” she said. “You get confused when you have a word you only know in one language and have to put it up in the other. Your brain is always working to solve that.” 

Cheslik said that, because the Rio Grande Valley has such high demand for these skilled professionals, the ASLI program partners with the Spanish Translation department to provide advanced training for fluent Spanish speakers.  

He likens interpreting to a duck’s ability to glide – seemingly calmly ­– over water.  

“You don’t see the feet whirling underneath the surface,” he said. “That’s how an interpreter’s brain manages two languages – and trilingual is even more hectic. It takes a very skilled person with a lot of experience to make it seem effortless.” 


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.