Working SLPA and Part-Time Graduate Student

by Abigail Seiger

Initially, I was unwilling to make any seemingly "unconventional" plans for graduate school. I wanted to continue at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, where I received my undergraduate degree, and go straight from my undergrad program to the graduate program, thinking that the sooner I could get done with school, the better off I'd be. My parents, however, had other plans for me. Because I had been in school on again and off again over the course of 9 years, they began to express what I knew was coming: the time had come for me to get out there in the "real" world. More than my parents' desire to push me out of their financial nest, they wanted me to get some experience working in the field to make sure that speech-language pathology was something that was worth the additional time and cost required to pursue it further.

No matter how much I tried to assure them that I "knew" what it really was like to be a speech-language pathologist and that I was sure this was what I wanted to do, the 25 observation hours I received watching videos as an undergrad were not enough to convince them that I truly knew what it was like. I was to take yet another break from school when all I wanted to do was just be done with it once and for all. It wasn't until I started doing my hours to become an SLPA that I realized I hadn't a clue what it was really like to work in the field of speech-language pathology.

First of all, I don't think I processed much of what I learned about autism as an undergrad until I began to work with children with autism. I did not have any sort of idea about how to work with this population. From a brief encounter with a child with autism whom my mentor used to see, I had concluded that I had no interest in working with this group of children. Ironically, children with autism have composed the majority of my caseload during the past 3 years of my work in a private practice, and due to the expert tutelage of my supervisor, Sarah Pingatore, CCC-SLP, I have actually come to consider them to be my most preferred clients. I was thrown into the whirlwind of their world, a world I truly had to experience to understand. 

I have spent the past couple of years working with other special needs children in the home health setting, an environment that in its entirety I could not fully appreciate until I started working in it. Periodically, I have had the privilege to collaborate with occupational therapists and developmental special instructionists (DSIs), which has given me firsthand insight into how various disciplines can work together to create holistic change and progress. The occupational therapists, for example, have allowed me to see how addressing children's sensory needs can enhance their progress toward achieving their speech and language therapy goals. The DSIs have illustrated the importance of building a rapport and understanding with parents to further facilitate parent-child interactions that enhance early developmental skills. I have also been able to take advantage of my Spanish speaking skills to work with many bilingual and/or predominantly Spanish speaking families, which has given me a new appreciation for living in such a multicultural nation and has taught me the importance of raising bilingual children capable of speaking both languages. These are things that can only be learned from experience working in the field. This doesn't mean, however, that there hasn't been a whole lot more that I know I need to learn.

After a couple of years of working in the field, when taking more time off from work was officially no longer an option, I enrolled in Northern Arizona University's Part-time Summers-Only graduate program for students interested in pursuing a master's degree in clinical speech-language pathology in Flagstaff, Arizona. This 3-year-plus-one-summer, 63–66 credit program is unlike any other program I explored. This program allowed me to continue working in the field while pursuing my degree. When I complete the program, I will have spent a total of three summers taking face-to-face classes on the NAU campus in Flagstaff, three courses online during the academic year, and three clinical rotations. Two of the clinical rotations are at my place of employment, and the third rotation is in a medical/non-school setting of my choice, during the fourth summer. Because the program is part-time, even out-of-state students only pay state tuition for the summer classes. 

The professors, who also have firsthand clinical experience working in the field, have the mutual advantage of talking to us on a clinician-to-clinician basis, explaining how we can apply what we learn in the classroom directly to what we are doing now. Consequently, as students and clinicians, we have more relevant feedback and scenario-related questions, as opposed to simply sitting back and trying to soak it all in without having experienced it. Now in my classes, when we discuss autism, everything we talk about makes more sense, because I have firsthand experience. At the same time, I learn new techniques for working with children with autism that I can directly apply to my clients. 

Unlike a program that is entirely online where peers remain virtual, my online classmates are the same people I formed relationships with over the summers. We continue to connect not only in our weekly online posts, but outside of the academic realm as well. Going over the hurdles that can arise in a graduate program in addition to trying to nourish a career in the field, it is nice to have such a close-knit network of support in the classroom as well as in the field.

When I graduate, I will not only have a master's degree, but I will be prepared to start my clinical fellowship. Once the fellowship is completed, I will apply for the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Throughout the years, I have learned a lot about what it takes to become a speech-language pathologist, but NAU has taught me how to be a speech-language pathologist who makes a difference in the lives of people. This makes being an SLP not just a job, but a passion.

Abigail Seiger is an SLPA at Essential Therapy Solutions in Queen Creek, Arizona, and a part-time graduate student at Northern Arizona University. You may contact Abigail at .

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