When the Library of Congress created a new internship within the Interpreting Services Program this past year, it turned to Eastern Kentucky University for the program’s first participant.
And it’s a perfect fit for Mekaella Vailu’u, a senior with a double major in American Sign Language Interpreting and Deaf Studies and a minor in Political Science.
“I didn’t apply anywhere else,” said Vailu’u, a southern California native who moved to Kentucky as a teen and graduated from East Jessamine High School. “It was a dream, and I was fully invested. I get to wake up and walk the halls with people who report directly to Congress and help our elected officials remain informed on issues in a non-partisan way. Living a dream is the best part about working here.”
Vailu’u is observing team interpreters while on Library assignments, and “our goal is to have her interpreting on her own by the end of the semester,” said Travis Painter, Interpreting Services Program manager for the Library of Congress and a 2010 EKU graduate. “Her passion for the field of interpreting and autodidactic nature have made her a pleasure to work with and a motivation to our office as we watch her continually go above and beyond what is asked of her. Her success is both reassuring that this internship opportunity is here to stay, and equally sets a challenge for anyone in the future who has to meet the incredibly high bar that she has set.”
She is also developing employee profiles of all deaf employees, a project that includes extensive note taking, monitoring, interviewing, recording and compiling professional profiles focused on the specific language used in the Library and within each unique service unit.
Vailu’u is planning three events that will focus on aspects of Deaf Culture and Community: “Telecommunication: Influencing the Deaf World,” “Deaf Culture: De’Via” and “Preserving American Deaf Culture.” She has gained the support of the Library of Congress Deaf Association and will work closely with the Association and deaf staff to “create a truly deaf-culture and community-focused event,” Painter said.
The Library’s Asian American Association has also requested that Vailu’u, whose father hails from the Pacific island nation of Samoa, plan an event focused on Samoan culture.
Vailu’u became familiar with American Sign Language as a teen in order to communicate with a sister who’s one of 10 older siblings. “I finally felt like I knew my sister, which brought me into the culture and community, since I was so eager to spend time with her.” Although her family connection encouraged her, it was actually her passion for equality and disability rights that drew Vailu’u into interpreting.
“I wanted to be a part of a community that refused to take a label like ‘disabled’ or ‘handicapped,’ even ‘hearing-impaired,’ and partner with them in their passion for accessibility and language equality. My sister, Karen, has been to many different countries to teach the deaf that they are capable of anything and that society does not have to hold them down. She is where I found my hunger for becoming an international deaf rights activist.”
After graduating from Eastern this May, Vailu’u plans to apply to law school to pursue her passion. “Although we have had influential legislation like the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, other countries still battle with providing equal rights to those who are considered or labeled ‘disabled.’ This internship allows me access to professionals who deal with equal access laws and opportunities on a daily basis, giving me a better understanding of the specialty in law I am considering pursuing.”
On the Richmond campus, Vailu’u has been an EKU Guru for three years, served as secretary of the student chapter of the American Sign Language Association and was among the first residents of the ASL living-learning community in Walters Hall, where two floors house a population composed largely of deaf students, those who grew up in a deaf culture, and students majoring or minoring in interpreter education, deaf education or deaf studies. It’s the first such residential community on a Kentucky college or university campus.
“EKU provided me a home away from home, a perfectly sized university that I would not feel lost in massive classes,” Vailu’u said. “And they have one of the best American Sign Language Interpreting programs in the nation (it’s one of only 13 nationally accredited baccalaureate degree programs in American Sign Language and Interpreter Education). “The EKU program has prepared me to be a creative thinker while facilitating communication between deaf and non-deaf. The ASLIE department has done this through challenging my understanding of others outside of my scope of interest and building my skill in the language used by the community.”
For more information about EKU’s Department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education, visit aslie.eku.edu.