Jonathan Hopkins, beloved member of the College of Art and Design’s interpreting team, has retired. But many others know Hopkins for his work as a performer for a wide range of activities at RIT, including sports games and practices, stage performances, Native American events, and art class sessions. In 1988, RIT offered Hopkins a job as an interpreter before he graduated from NTID’s Interpreter Training Program, and he spent the next 34 years at RIT.
As a Tlingit Native American, Hopkins has worked to provide students, faculty, and staff of color with a sense of belonging and community on campus. He has participated in, led, and helped develop numerous organizations for people of color on and off campus, especially Native Americans and deaf and hard of hearing people. And, by interpreting for a variety of activities, he has made them all more accessible.
Hopkins reflected on his career.
What drew you to performing, and ultimately to RIT/NTID?
I first became interested in American Sign Language when I was about 10 years old at a summer camp in Maine. There were several deaf campers and we all learned to spell the alphabet and some basic sign language. After returning to the same camp every summer and building friendships with several Deaf campers for over 10 years, I have become much more proficient in ASL.
When I entered college, I learned that my first major wasn’t for me. My counselor asked if I had any other interests, hobbies, or skills, and I told them I knew ASL. They suggested I look into some ITPs (interpreter training programs). I have applied to and been accepted into seven interpreter training programs, my top three being Gallaudet University in Washington, DC; Northeastern University in Boston; and RIT/NTID.
After visiting Gallaudet and Northeastern, and arriving at NTID, I noticed a major difference, and that was the number of Deaf students and people at RIT/NTID who were using ASL. As soon as I entered the college administration building, I was greeted by ASL on every floor. I knew then that this was the place for me. Unbeknownst to me, Rochester, NY has the largest deaf population per capita. This is where I would stay and make deep, meaningful connections and earn a living for 34 years.
What impact has being Native American had on your work at RIT?
I was the first Native American hired in my department and, I believe, one of the first at NTID. It had a huge impact on me personally and professionally. Being able to navigate a work environment where you are the only one is admittedly a struggle. I remember growing up in places like department stores and being watched and carefully watched because they thought I was going to steal or shoplift. I was very aware that I was not trusted. I had the same feeling when I was first hired here as a full time employee, but not because I was going to steal or shoplift. The sentiment was more like, “Who is this Native American we just hired?” At that time, there were only three other performers of color in our department.
This is when the professional impact “showed up”. As a former student, I have always been involved with organizations here at NTID such as the Ebony Club, Latin American Deaf Club, Black Awareness Coordinating Committee, and Latin American Student Association. I became an advisor to the Ebony Club and became increasingly involved in many other organizations on campus for underrepresented students. I was elected chair of NTID for its Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which led to me establishing and chairing the Access Services Pluralism Committee. I also became the interpreter registry representative for Deaf Region 1 for color interpreters and transliterators.
I realized that we needed more Native American representation on campus and discovered that the number of Native American students on campus was shockingly low. I met these students and we started the Native American Student Association and the RIT American Indians of Science and Engineering Society chapter. I became the advisor to both organizations. I also founded and co-chaired the Native American Faculty and Staff Association for several years, and helped found the first fully Deaf Native American organization, known as the Intertribal Deaf Council. And, more recently, I helped establish the NTID Diversity Group.
What are some of your fondest memories of connecting with students?
My fondest memories would be when we hosted our very first Native American social and worked with the members of the Native American Student Association to make it happen. If you’ve never been to a Native American society, you’re missing out on the fun. However, the work that is being done behind the scenes is enormous. Whether it’s getting the date and time for the event, booking a venue, contacting all the vendors, singers and dancers, reaching out to all the Native American communities, and making it a success – everything it takes a lot of work. But seeing the community come together and supporting the students and seeing the faces of the students when it’s all been done…it’s priceless. Remember that students are the reason we are all here. Seeing their success means we have succeeded. This is the key to any university.