ASL interpreter for Gov. DeWine’s briefings traces passion for language to Westerville South

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Marlena “Lena” Smith never saw herself as an American Sign Language interpreter. 

She loved the language as a student at Westerville South High School but worried her learning disability would affect her ability to listen, process and interpret the language fast enough in a live setting. 

“I was terrified of interpreting,” said Smith, 29, who graduated from Westerville South in 2009. “You are taking someone’s life in your hands. I have a real respect for that.”

Thanks to encouragement from Tiffany Clark Paulus, her former ASL teacher at Westerville South, Smith explored a college and career path that led to a deeper understanding of the language, a stronger connection to the local Deaf and Hard of Hearing community and the discovery that all her efforts since high school led back to interpreting.

Now, Smith is part of a team of ASL interpreters at Gov. Mike DeWine’s briefings during the COVID-19 crisis. She serves as an interpreter with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, a state-agency that empowers Ohioans with disabilities through employment, disability determination, and independence. 

“I’m happy to be part of the team,” she said.

Smith’s ASL journey started as a sophomore at Westerville South when her guidance counselor thought she would thrive by talking the language. She walked into Kelly Modlich’s ASL 1 classroom and noticed the message that greeted students on the chalkboard: “If I catch you talking, I will hand you a detention slip.”

“Immediately, I realized American Sign Language was composed of more than finger-spelled words,” Smith said. “I found it fascinating.”

She was drawn to the cinematic nature of the language, how facial expressions and the structure of how the language is expressed captured tone and imagery. 

Paulus’ ASL 2 class ramped up her excitement for ASL even more. Smith was inspired by Paulus’ enthusiasm for the language and the stories she would share about the community. Smith would often stay in Paulus’ classroom after school just to chat with her in sign language.

Smith said the school’s ASL program often shared information about different events in the district and the area to engage with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom. Thanks to her work with Paulus, Smith felt brave enough to participate.

She volunteered with the Signs of Christmas, a ministry group that performs Christmas carols in ASL throughout Columbus to promote awareness of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community. She performed in the district’s ASL Idol, where students and community members could tell a story or interpret a song using sign language. She participated in a Valentine’s Day dance at the Ohio School for the Deaf and attended a silent picnic at Ohio State University, where ASL students across the region and Deaf community could meet and play games using their language skills.

“Our teachers would encourage us to go and participate in these activities outside of school because the language is best learned from a Deaf person,” Smith said.

As Smith's work within the community grew, Paulus encouraged her to consider interpreting. Smith, however, faced challenges with processing information. When asked a question, she typically needed time to decipher what was asked and how to respond – a trait she thought didn’t align with interpreting. 

But her love of the language led her to the interpreter education program in Columbus State Community College’s American Sign Language department after graduation. She was interested in seeing ASL in action and wanted to connect with others studying ASL as well as those in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. 

While there, she worked hard to improve her processing skills, learning strategies to employ while interpreting. The experience helped her gain confidence in her language skills and after she graduated, she started to interpret during theater and concert performances.

It wasn’t until she finished her education – a bachelor’s degree in leadership with a concentration in ASL interpreting at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati and a master’s degree in creative writing at Goddard College – that she decided to try interpreting as a career. 

Columbus Colony Housing, a Westerville-based independent living facility that serves Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing older adults, was looking for an interpreter. Smith was hesitant but ultimately decided to apply after some encouragement from friends. She got the job.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “The residents are incredible people and they have amazing stories to tell. They all have something to teach you. I got to learn more about the language and be around people who trusted me and told me their stories. It was wonderful.”

She worked part-time at the Columbus Colony, eventually moving on to other interpreting jobs in Columbus before coming to the Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities last year. 

Once terrified of becoming an interpreter, Smith is now honored to be one, especially with her work making critical messages accessible during Gov. DeWine’s COVID-19 briefings. 

She credits her journey to the educators who guided, inspired and supported her throughout high school and beyond. 

“Everything starts in Westerville,” she said.

DID YOU KNOW Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities works with students with disabilities in Westerville City Schools? Sara Mermer, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, helps students with career exploration and counseling, work-based learning experiences, counseling on post-secondary education, paid work experiences, and job coaching. She is currently working with 59 students as well as 22 graduates in need of support. 

To learn more, please contact Sara Mermer at or call 614-307-7403.