Legal Interpreter Mentors Demand Better Wages


Graydon Paul/ Villanovan Photography

Legal interpreters at Villanova’s law school refused to return back to work until they were given fair wages.

Katie Reed, News Columnist

In a partnership between The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and the Charles Widger School of Law, Villanovans can apply for the Community Interpreter Internship, which introduces them to oral interpreting and written translating between English and Spanish in a legal setting. The internship follows alongside a course taught by Dr. Raúl Diego Rivera Hernández, Associate Professor and Director of the Latin American Studies Program.

After completing the coursework and serving around 130 hours in the Law School Clinics, students can be selected as a Legal Interpreter Mentor, a paid position that helps manage and train the interns, assist with clients and attend to court cases taken on by the law school.

According to the program’s website, it is “very much at the core of what Villanova University is all about: learning while also giving of yourself to others,” specifically helping Hispanic and immigrant communities. However, as highlighted by three mentors—Enrique Rosado, Victoria Rozas-Rivera and Melanie Gonzalez—the University’s boasting of the program did not align with its compensation of their staff. This dispute was settled, however the mentors discussed the process.

On March 31st, Rosado sent an email out on behalf of the mentors informing Human Resources and Father Peter that they would not report to work until their wages were increased. They emphasized that they did not take this decision lightly, given the clients and workers that will be impacted, and it came about after months of being ignored by administration. 

Rosado initiated the conversation to increase wages for mentors, as when he returned to the program as a graduate student, the pay was still the same. At first, HR agreed to increase the mentors’ pay from $10 to $12.50 an hour, but then froze all wage increases and sent out a survey to assess student wages across campus instead. After all of this, dining services was granted higher wages, not the mentors. 

The situation escalated when the mentors met with Bo Connell, Associate Dean for Finance, Administration & Strategy at the law school. The meeting went poorly. 

“That meeting was really discouraging, and I think we all left feeling defeated and disrespected because the least that was insinuated was that we were doing our job because of the money,” Rozas-Rivera said. “Considering that all but one of [the mentors] are either children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves, it’s just an incredible thing to insinuate. We’re all extremely connected to these cases and that does not mean that we don’t have a right to still demand to be paid fairly.”

Gonzalez reaffirmed how dismissive administration was, especially when they brought up dining services’ pay increase.

“I remember in the meeting, [Connell] listened to our concerns and he sat with us, but his approach was very condescending,” Gonzalez said. “We compared our jobs and our job duties to baristas, for example, who got a raise this semester, and he was like ‘Well, if you are only doing this for the money, if you think that’s a more attractive position, then those jobs are also open.’”

“I know, for me at least, that was a big slap in the face because I had chosen to spend my two years in grad school doing my research assistantship and also working at the law school,” Rosado said. “I chose that, I wanted to do that because I had a connection [there]. I had been in the clinics for a long time, and a lot of the clients I’ve known since 2019.”

Rozas-Rivera noted that outside subcontractors brought in to interpret other languages, such as Haitian Creole or an indigenous language from Guatemala, are paid $70 to $80 an hour, proving how valuable interpretation skills are.

Rosado further detailed not only the technical skills involved in interpreting—being fluent in two languages (including the many dialects of Spanish), maintaining the flow of conversation between clients and student lawyers and overseeing the internship—but also the emotional toil that comes from doing this work. Often, the stories that they deal with involve immigration, gang violence and persecution, which are incredibly traumatic for clients, so interpreting such stories in the first person is draining for the interpreters. 

 “Even though you know that it’s not your story, it’s very hard for your subconscious to differentiate that when you’re repeating it in the first person over and over again,” Rosado said. “It was very frustrating to try and get that message across [to Connell], and it felt like we were being completely iced out and woefully misunderstood.” 

Gonzalez elaborated on the emotional cost of the program, identifying it as the hardest part of the job.

“The hardest [part of our job] is how to deal with the emotional weight of the cases and translating in the first person while doing it professionally,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not only about your professional skills, but you as a person and how you are treating another human being when you have to translate their traumatic story. We are all from different backgrounds and we can relate to what some immigrants go through—some of us are immigrants ourselves, some of us have immigrant parents—so it’s [also] something that is particularly touching to our own stories.”

Rozas-Rivera emphasized the point that after all that labor, not being fairly compensated is even more devastating. 

“Ten dollars is just not commensurate at all with our skills, with the emotional labor and with the fact that a lot of our staff was putting themselves in positions of retraumatizing themselves because they’ve been through similar processes,” Rozas-Rivera said.

Moreover, Rosado expressed the University’s culpability in not promoting fair wages. 

“I just wanted to believe that [Villanova] would have a little bit more of a priority and an emphasis on a program that they love to brag about,” Rosado said. “Villanova loves to brag about the clinical program, how great the student lawyers are, how great the interpreters are and the great work that we do. It’s one of Father Peter’s favorite things that Villanova does, but when it came time to support the people who were making that work possible, it felt like they fell short.”

“I think it’s ironic to dismiss the work that we do in the way [administration] did before, especially given that the mission of the clinic is to support people from our background,” Gonzalez said. “So, if the mission of the clinic is to do that, then why treat your workers like that?”

April 3rd was the first day the mentors did not report to work. It took more than a week for HR to schedule a meeting with them, giving them less than 24-hour notice. This time, the mentors spoke with Connell, Ray Duffy (Associate Vice President of Human Resources and Affirmative Action Officer) and Rabbia Evans (Senior Director, Compensation & HR Strategy).

“I did feel a little bit more seen this time around,” Rosado said. “Ray Duffy was the lead for this meeting, and I think he did a way better job of making us feel like human beings that were being wronged.”

Rozas-Rivera agreed, noting that administration took accountability for their actions. 

“I think one big difference and one of the things that really reassured us from this meeting was that for the first time, we saw somebody admitting wrong from everything that had happened,” Rozas-Rivera said. 

Duffy also emphasized the productivity of this conversation.

“I was pleased to have a productive dialogue with the student mentor interpreters regarding concerns they had and the important role that they play for the law school, its students and clients,” Duffy said. “This discussion provided these students an opportunity to explain the details of their important roles, as the University works to finalize the hourly rates for various positions within the student wage scale.”

During the meeting, it was explained that there are different tiers of pay for student workers: the first tier is $10, the second is $11.50, the third, which involves advanced technical jobs, is $13 and the fourth, which involves managerial positions, is $15. The mentors spent the meeting proving that, at the very least, they fall into the managerial positions tier, as there is always at least one mentor in the clinic from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and they are the people that both interns and student lawyers turn to consistently for assistance.

Gonzalez and Rosado both spoke to the support mentors provide the student lawyers with. 

“It’s [the student lawyers’] first time doing this and dealing with actual clients, so sometimes after meetings, calls and stuff like that, we give them feedback,” Gonzalez said, noting that the mentors’ cultural background and understanding of the language allows them to have a better understanding of the interaction. “I think that’s very important for the development of the case and building a trustworthy interaction with your clients.”

“I think that we lie in this really cool crossroads between the clients and the student lawyers because we’re not law students,” Rosado said. “The more time that you’re at the clinic, inevitably you’re going to learn legal concepts and you’re going to start to pick up on the way they have to be asking questions. There’s times when we have a little bit more legal experience than some of the student lawyers because it’s their first time.”

Rozas-Rivera also emphasized the greater scope of their work, warranting a pay increase akin to dining services.

“Our work goes beyond the University, and we often hear that student jobs aren’t market-rate jobs, but ours is,” Rozas-Rivera said. “Our job exists in the labor market, it exists outside of the vacuum of Villanova. As a result, it impacts how the interns do—undergraduate students—how the student lawyers do—law school students—and then how the clients do.”

From the meeting, HR committed to increasing the mentors’ wages to $15 an hour, effective April 17th, which is when they returned to work. HR also committed to continue deliberations about further increasing that wage to $17 an hour and meeting again with the mentors in two weeks. 

The mentors also learned that, at the law school, research assistants will be receiving $15 an hour wages, and after a certain number of hours accumulated in this role, they can increase to up to $18. The mentors—who have spent well over the 130 hours accumulated in just the internship—would like to see the same process implemented for them, especially as they are continuously increasing their own skillset and new clinics, like the Caritas Clemency Clinic, are being added to the law school. 

“With a little bit of training, the interpreters can be research assistants, but with a lot of training, research assistants cannot be interpreters,” Rozas-Rivera said, quoting a professor who works with both research assistants and mentors.

It is especially important to keep the conversation about wages going, as the mentors hope to grow the internship program and attract more students to replace those who will be graduating.

Overall, throughout this process, the mentors felt supported by their peers, faculty and the student lawyers especially. However, as Rozas-Rivera reiterated, there is plenty of room for improvement, given that the stalling over wages targeted a specific community on campus.

“We did feel very supported, but we know that Villanova has a commitment to help immigrants and [promote] justice and equity,” Rozas-Rivera said. “Most of our staff are from Latino backgrounds, so we are very much an equity issue because often we’re all going here either on scholarship or financial aid, and we need the money. One way to get that is to be fairly compensated for the skills that we are already bringing in, [which] is an issue beyond Villanova. People often get asked to do their jobs in two different languages and they do not get compensated for that, and they should, so this is not just us.”

Rosado had parting words for other student workers who are feeling neglected, encouraging them to not be afraid to exercise their right to organize.

“I’m sure that there’s a lot of jobs on campus that feel equally as disrespected and disregarded for the work that they do,” Rosado said. “I would just remind them to not lose hope and to advocate for yourself, because if you never start the conversation, it’s never going to be had.”