Michelle van Beek
Behavioral Health Coordinator and Interpreting Services Coordinator, Promise Community Health Center, Sioux Center, Iowa
Michelle van Beek

Found in translation

After experiencing the challenge of learning a second language firsthand, Michelle decided to become an interpreter and provide essential language support to Spanish speakers in the northwest Iowa region. When Michelle applied to Northwestern, the college had one of the only translation and interpretation majors in the country—providing a valuable opportunity to prepare for an interpreting career close to her Rock Valley, Iowa, home.

What does your job involve?
As behavioral health coordinator, I talk with patients seeking therapy at Promise Community Health Center to identify any barriers on their path to starting therapy, such as transportation or finances. I also interpret during therapy appointments with Spanish-speaking patients and collaborate with a bilingual therapist to make sure I am relaying everything to the best of my ability in both Spanish and English.

As interpreting services coordinator, I oversee the interpreters hired at Promise, provide Spanish proficiency testing for job candidates, and hold yearly reviews to ensure their Spanish language skills are maintained. Another part of my role is providing training materials and support to our interpreters interested in becoming nationally certified medical interpreters. I also enjoy hosting translation and interpretation (TNI) students for their internships in collaboration with Sioux Center Health and Hegg Health Center in Rock Valley.

Why did you decide to study Spanish-English translation and interpretation (TNI)?
I started out as a nursing major at NWC and later added a TNI major because I thought it would be a valuable skill set as a nurse. I then realized my passion for bridging the language gap that many people in our country experience. Interpreting was not nearly as widespread when my family moved to the area, so I grew up interpreting at medical appointments and sight translating legal documents for my parents while they were learning English. These experiences drove me to become an interpreter so bilingual kids could just be kids at their parents’ appointments and not have to shoulder the heavy responsibility of delivering detailed medical information.

What are the strengths of Northwestern’s foreign language department?
One of the department’s strengths is the great variety of professors from different backgrounds. In Spanish, vocabulary and word meanings can change from region to region within the same country, so having professors with knowledge from many different experiences allows students to learn a wider variety of terminology. The collaboration within the department was also something I valued. Having an outside professor grade our translations gave us a new perspective on ways we could keep improving.

You also run a part-time Spanish-English translation business with Kelsey and Weston Van De Berg. What prompted you to partner in the enterprise?
As graduates of the same program, Kelsey, Weston and I have always reached out to one another for interpreting or translation help. After years of being friends and colleagues, we decided to make our collaboration more formal and start the business. Because each of us was formally trained by the same professor, we’ve been able to edit each other’s translations and split larger jobs that would not have been possible working alone.