Ciara Morales ‘16 is Using her Major to Fuel Her Passions
Ciara Morales ‘16 sat in her advisor’s office at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts trying to figure out what to do. A recent death in the family was hitting close to home in her chosen major, Urban Studies, and making it hard for her to focus on her classes. Excited about Urban Studies, Ciara was eager to continue learning more about these fields but when her counselor advised her to take a break and take other classes, she found herself in an American Sign Language (ASL) class where she found unexpected joy.
Ciara took ASL classes for the next year and a half before she ran through all of the courses taught at Eugene Lang. Finishing up her sophomore year, Ciara recognized she loved learning ASL and she wanted to continue down this path. She remembers, “I realized I wanted to do this as a career. I felt more excited and inspired by ASL than any other classes I’d taken.” There was just one problem: Eugene Lang didn’t have an ASL program. Ciara had to find a new school to transfer into. With family in Chicago and Columbia College Chicago being one of only 15 accredited four-year colleges to offer a degree in ASL, it was an easy choice to attend Columbia. In fact, Ciara transferred in after only a virtual tour of the campus and declared a major in ASL – English Interpretation.
When Ciara started at Columbia, she was nervous about starting at a new school and felt like she had to play catch up to her classmates. During this time, she found different professors within the ASL department every semester who were willing to work with her and with whom she was able to build relationships, which helped ease her transition. Another benefit of transferring into Columbia was that Ciara would have the opportunity to follow her other passions. Ciara had always danced, she’s been on teams, taken classes and almost minored in Dance at Columbia. She recalls, “when I was in school, the conversation that I constantly had with myself was I'm either going to be a really great interpreter or I'm going to be a really great dancer, but I'm not going be able to do both right now because I need to build my [professional] skills.”
At the end of her junior year, Ciara studied with her classmates for the panel assessment. The panel assessment is an exam where students need to showcase their abilities to interpret live, and they need to pass to be able to move forward with the practicum their senior year. Ciara was devastated when she didn’t pass it on her first try but dedicated herself to passing her second time by going through tutoring all summer with friends in the program and faculty during office hours.
After putting in the time and effort to enhance her skills, Ciara broke her finger a week before her second panel assessment. The next day, she went into ASL Chair Peter Cook’s office to try and figure out a solution. The panel ended up working with Ciara by going over everything she had done over the summer, analyzed her work, and were able to see the progression she had made and passed her even though she wasn’t able to sign live during the assessment. She said, “the professors were committed to helping me get through the program and graduate. They were invested in my future. It’s something you don’t really see in colleges and it’s what makes the ASL department at Columbia different.”
“This career has granted me the opportunity to be the dancer that I want it to be as a child. If I hadn’t gone to Columbia, if I hadn’t met the professors that I met, the people who've encouraged and worked with me, I wouldn’t be doing what I love now.”
Ciara’s advice for current students is to immerse themselves into the deaf community as it’s the best way to become a better interpreter. “Seek out the people who have what you want. Those who have the jobs and experiences you want. And then listen to their advice,” she recommended. Ciara’s senior year, her mentor told her that if she wanted to become an interpreter she had to move to where there are large deaf communities. Based on this advice, after graduating Ciara applied to and was accepted as an intern at an interpreting agency in Washington D.C. Following the internship, Ciara was offered an apprenticeship position, giving her another year of experience with the agency. In all, Ciara gained an additional two years’ experience with the agency before going out on her own as a freelance interpreter.
Then two and a half years ago, Ciara’s partner, Ace, asked her if she’d be their dance partner. Together, they now travel around the world teaching dance classes and performing at clubs and festivals. “Freelance interpreters are very fortunate,” Ciara said, “We have a lot of work available to us. Anytime I need work, I am able to find it.” Today, Ciara and her partner travel for dance and Ciara works with multiple agencies in New York City to freelance. She’s also using her passions to help others.
While in COVID-19 quarantine Ciara has accepted virtual interpreting assignments, but her work has cut down substantially as a freelance interpreter since the pandemic began. She’s used this time to double down on what she loves by hosting online donation-based Bachata dance classes. Moving forward, she and her partner Ace will be shifting gears to begin offering small online group classes at a discounted rate to take into take into consideration that others are being financially impacted by this pandemic.
Ciara and Ace are working on creating more inclusive spaces for dancers who are deaf or hard of hearing. For Ciara an uncertain beginning has had a very, very happy middle. And there’s plenty more of the story that’s still unsigned.