Professional violinist’s second act as a medical interpreter

Penn State Lehigh Valley provides access to growing field
four students

Enmanuel Sotomayor (forefront) is one of the CMIT program students. Sotomayor is a physician from Cuba who moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania four years ago. 

Credit: Dennille Schuler

Joel Alarcon is a professional violinist from Port Deposit, Maryland, who would drive two hours each way every Friday to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to prepare for his first job in health care: as a medical interpreter.

“My mom doesn’t speak English and when she visits a doctor, I worry how they convey information to her,” Alarcon said, “I wanted to get a job in this field to help other people. There is much more to interpreting than just converting the message from one language to another; it’s about conveying the feeling and meaning of what’s happening.”

Alarcon came to the United States in 2006 from Honduras. He attended the University of Southern Mississippi where he learned English while earning multiple degrees. Alarcon learned about the medical interpreting field from his wife who is a nurse. He plans to continue his work as a professional musician while working as a medical interpreter. Alarcon is part of the first cohort of students to complete the Core Medical Interpreter Training (CMIT) program offered by Penn State Lehigh Valley this fall. The CMIT program is for people interested in meeting the requirements for national certification for medical/healthcare interpreter.

teacher in front of classroom full of students

Gerardo Lazaro who is from the National Institute for Coordinated Healthcare taught the CMIT program at Penn State Lehigh Valley’s Overlook Park location. 

Credit: Dennille Schuler

Gerardo Lazaro who is from the National Institute for Coordinated Healthcare taught the CMIT program at Penn State Lehigh Valley’s Overlook Park location. Lazaro is the co-author of the CMIT program and the author of the workbook for medical interpreters.

“My experience as a medical interpreter allowed me to see great disparity in medical literacy. Even if you speak English, when you are talking to a doctor it’s a whole other language for anybody to deal with, let alone someone who is not an English native speaker or someone who is not English proficient. We initiated a collaboration with Penn State Abington in 2017 and it grew from there. We expanded to the Lehigh Valley campus with hopes to add another Penn State campus soon.”

-- Gerardo Lazaro, National Institute for Coordinated Healthcare

CMIT is offered to bilingual or multilingual individuals, who are either currently working in health care or are interested in obtaining an entry-level credential in the field. The training covers all basic aspects of interpreting in health care including the roles, modes, ethics, and current professional and regulatory guidelines, strategies for effective communication between different cultures in the health care setting, medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, eight hours on the Codes of Ethics, and intensive role-playing to gain new skills and significantly improve patient safety.

“I first learned about the need for the medical interpreter program from a friend, Dr. Vasu Singh. Dr. Singh completed her medical degree in India, and she knows firsthand the benefit of a program such as this,” said Tina Q. Richardson, chancellor of Penn State Lehigh Valley. “I am excited that Penn State Lehigh Valley has the opportunity to serve the community in this pivotal way by providing the CMIT program.”

Six of the nine students this fall drove from the Lancaster area to complete the CMIT program. These students are part of the Literacy Council of Lancaster/Lebanon’s International Healthcare Professionals Program. Dr. Daniel Weber is founder of the program and an active volunteer. He is an OBGYN physician and is also one of the students in the CMIT program.

“There is a growing need in the U.S. for medical interpreters. There is so much unmet need right now. Medical Interpreters increase the quality of care, decrease the risk of malpractice and decrease cost while also helping to makes healthier communities,” Weber said. “My medical colleagues and I are grateful for the strong support provided by the Literacy Council of Lancaster and Country Meadows. Their generous support made it possible to enroll in this program.” 

While many people in the program come from other professions and are looking to make a change, some medical interpreters are already medical doctors in their home countries.

“Our international physicians are a strong match for this professional development. It provides the opportunity to improve their linguistic foundations and to further their understanding of the complex U.S. health care system,” Weber said. “It is possible to train and serve as a medical interpreter while pursuing careers in health care, especially if you already have medical expertise.”

Enmanuel Sotomayor is one of the other CMIT program students. Sotomayor is a physician from Cuba who moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, four years ago. Once he becomes a nationally certified interpreter, he said he plans to take his boards and apply for residency to become a medical doctor in the U.S.

“I joined the program to improve my Medical English proficiency and to give back to what was given to me. I used a medical interpreter when I first got here,” Sotomayor said. “There are great needs for medical interpreters, especially in inner city. This national certification will also be a plus when I am in my medical residency here.”

Sotomayor said he has been impressed with the CMIT program and its quality.

“I didn’t realize how complex it was to be an interpreter. You act as a conduit and must use the same emotion and context. You also need to understand the slang used in both languages, the cultural understanding and the sayings. I have learned a lot,” Sotomayor said.

For questions, contact Andrea Tessier at 610-285-5026 or email [email protected].



Dennille Schuler

Public Relations Specialist
Penn State Lehigh Valley

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