Duke students partner with DPS to deepen language access during COVID-19




Language barriers slow the process of receiving critical information, which is particularly problematic during a global pandemic. Last spring, as DPS raced to pivot from classroom learning to distance learning in just a few weeks, and non-English speaking families were particularly vulnerable to missing vital information and resources connected to basic aid and teaching their children.

The DPS Multilingual Resource Center was designed for this very reason—to provide translation and interpretation services for Latinx and non-English speakers; connecting students and their families to the services and resources they need. When pandemic times left the center scrambling to keep up with the pace—specifically with translation of languages other than Spanish -- faculty and students from three different language areas at Duke (Chinese-Mandarin, French and Arabic) partnered with DPS to extend the center’s reach.

The partnership focused on translating short weekly messages related to topics such as food access, important dates deadlines, enrollment information, virtual learning, access to laptops and wi-fi, school events, and more. [See messages in context here.]

Professors Yan Liu (Duke Asian & Middle Eastern Studies) and Karine Provot (Duke Romance Studies) helped to guide students enrolled in their language courses in this project. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges to our students. One of them was isolation. Our partnership with the DPS Multilingual Resource Center provided my students with a great opportunity to get connected with their classmates and the local community through working together on translating weekly school messages for the local Chinese community. Students reflected that this partnership helped them to feel more connected to Durham, improve their real-life translation skills, and learn more about Durham’s public school system,” said Liu.

Provot added:

This collaboration allowed my students to strengthen their skills and open their minds as translators, while connecting in meaningful and useful ways. During a world pandemic, while many are isolated, confined at home or on campus, this partnership allowed students to feel a deeper sense of purpose and community.

The assistance in Arabic was organized by Riad Kanj (Duke '22, Economics), a representative of INJAZ., a Duke student group dedicated to working with refugees in the local community. Professor Maha Houssami (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) served as a faculty advisor to the student organization and helped to monitor their work.

“It felt great that I was able to collaborate with my classmates and make an impact in Durham while being back home in Beirut, Lebanon. I am glad we had a chance to make a difference, and help students keep their learning habits despite the challenges present currently,” says Kanj. 

Even though coronavirus brought a herculean challenge to non-English speakers, Pablo Friedmann, Director of the Multilingual Resource Center, sees the partnership as an opportunity to innovate language access:

“I think this could be a really innovative model where we can grow the talents of students in the field of language access, and we can help inform our families in Durham Public Schools of what is going on. Hopefully we can plant a seed where others can see what we’re doing and support this vision at a deeper level.”