7 languages come in handy at Mill Creek passport office

MILL CREEK — For many people who visit Mill Creek City Hall, Michelle Conner is a pleasant surprise.

For the past 10 years, she’s been a passport technician at the Mill Creek Police Department. People from all over the world come to her counter to apply for, renew and replace passports.

They don’t expect to hear their own native languages, in her voice, coming across crisp and clear.

Conner, 48, speaks seven languages: English, Spanish, Russian, German, French, Swedish and Japanese. She’s learning an eighth, Greek.

All those languages come in handy at her job, helping people prepare for international travel.

Conner was born in the U.S. When she was young, her parents, a rancher and homemaker of German descent, moved to Mexico. She grew up speaking Spanish at schools in Guadalajara until 11th grade, when her family moved back to the U.S., to New Mexico.

“I still do my math in Spanish because I learned all my time tables in Spanish, so it just comes easier,” she said.

She attended college in New Mexico, and spent time as an exchange student in Sweden. After college, she taught English in Japan.

As she made friends, Conner wanted to learn more about them, she said. Their languages seemed like a good place to start.

A neighbor lady got her started on German, and she loved German Club in high school. Then she met students from Sweden and decided to visit their homeland as an exchange student for a year. Her best friend grew up in Greece.

“I just was really lucky that I started so young and continued traveling as I moved along through life,” she said.

Roughly 100 people visit Mill Creek City Hall every week for passport services. It’s one of a handful of places in Snohomish County that can process the paperwork.

Conner likes hearing all of their stories, she said. Most people who need passport services share the happy excitement of those about to travel.

She hears about upcoming cruises to Mexico, honeymoons in the Mediterranean and exchange studies in England. There are ski trips, competitions for band and sports teams, and proud new citizens.

“You never know what you’re going to get at the window,” she said

Some stories are sad, though, too.

The most harried people often are those who need to visit ailing relatives in other countries before they die, she said. If she can’t help them in time, she tries to get them to another passport-services office nearby that can.

In a pinch, Conner also provides translation services for the police department. She might help someone understand their options for paying a traffic ticket, or assist officers who need to communicate with a crime victim.

Mill Creek police have three passport technicians, and they see it all, said Cherise Bromberg, police support services manager.

“With passports, every customer who comes up to the window is different and has a different understanding of how it works,” she said. “It takes a lot of patience.”

Conner assesses the customer’s needs, and gets them the right answer, Bromberg said.

People don’t always read the instructions, she said. Passport technicians end up explaining the same topics over and over. People often must bring along their children, who need passports, too. It might be the end of the day, and they might be a little grumpy.

Conner handles each case with sympathy, warmth and attention to detail, Bromberg said. Plus, she can communicate in all those languages.

“It humanizes the process,” Bromberg said. “The whole passport thing can be somewhat sterile, and it’s really nice to make someone feel that they’re understood on their own terms.”

Once, a couple at the counter spoke in English but spoke to each other in Swedish, Bromberg said. Conner started talking to them in Swedish, too.

“They just looked at her and smiled and started laughing hysterically,” she said. “All of the sudden, all three of them were talking the same language, and we didn’t even know she knew that language.”

Denise Gilbertson, a records technician, sits in the next cubicle over. She also spent years as a passport technician working with Conner.

She described her coworker as upbeat, friendly and knowledgeable.

Gilbertson often sees relief on people’s faces as they realize Conner can speak their native language, she said.

“It just makes the process go a little bit smoother, and it really puts the customer at ease,” she said. “There’s that sense of being able to communicate and knowing and understanding. That’s huge, especially when you’re dealing with a federal government application.”

Conner lives north of town in the Snohomish area with her husband and two daughters.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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