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"That's a Mouthful"

December 9, 2016

Photo of student Marcelina on left and Professor Finestack on right, with a computer monitor between the two.

Photo of student Marcelina on left and Professor Finestack on right, with a computer monitor between the two.
Student Marcellina (left) and Professor Finestack. Photo: Ali Hellendrung

There are a couple standard responses I get when I tell people what my major is. 

“Speech Language…. What?”

“Aww, so like, the person who helps little kids say their R’s?”

And most commonly just: “Wow, that’s a mouthful!” 

Most people have never even heard of speech-language-hearing sciences (SLHS). I don’t blame them, SLHS is a relatively small and specific major, but that’s exactly what makes it stand out within the College of Liberal Arts. 

Like the most teenagers, I spent the summer before my senior year of high school stressing out over where I was going to go to college, what I was going to study, and what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I knew that I wanted to find something that would apply to my two main passions: human sciences and working with people with disabilities. I wanted something that would challenge and push me academically but still be directly applicable to improving the lives of others. Slightly exasperated, I finally decided I would look up a list of college majors and see if any of them stuck out to me. I sat down with my dad and together we pulled up the list of majors offered at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater. There were a couple majors that interested me; special education, genetics, biology… but then I found a major I had never heard of before. “Speech-language-hearing sciences. Wow, that’s a mouthful,” my dad commented. 

Ten different college applications, one easy choice, and two and a half years later I am a sophomore and could not be happier with my decision to study SLHS at the University of Minnesota. This major continues to challenge and intrigue me. It has shown me the value and applicability of a liberal arts education as I have learned of its vast scope across medical, scientific, and psychological disciplines. The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences has provided me with a sense of belonging and a “small community feel” while still allowing me to reap the benefits of attending a Big 10, world-class, research-intensive university. 

Getting Started

I eagerly started my freshman year taking classes within the major and immediately became a member of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA). However, I think my most pivotal moment was when I joined the CLA Dean's Freshman Research and Creative Scholars Program. I was paired with Dr. Liza Finestack and worked in her Child Language Intervention Lab. Suddenly I was part of a team, a group of individuals striving to come up with real answers and solutions to serious problems and issues.

Through my work in the Child Language Intervention Lab, I was trained to become reliable in the transcription of child language samples. Transcribing any type of communication or speech allows for the statistical analysis of language, which is important in SLHS because it can help give us quantitative data, a challenge when working with language and communication. In the Child Language Intervention Lab, we use the Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT) system to ensure consistency in transcription. Transcribing using the SALT system requires the transcriber to recognize, mark (using a specific set of codes), and correct (when applicable) the subject’s language. Becoming a transcriptionist taught me to analyze language as I hear it and recognize morphemes, repetitions, errors, and other aspects of speech that I had never paid attention to before. 

Outside of my role as a transcriber, I observed and interacted with other projects in the Child Language Intervention Lab. Dr. Finestack’s work is not only fascinating but also truly inspirational and compelling. She is currently working on trail-blazing research that is uncovering efficient and effective language intervention strategies for children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, down syndrome, or fragile X syndrome. These disorders affect many children, resulting in significant impairment in language development, which in turn leads to long-term detrimental effects on their social interactions, academic achievement, and independence. Despite great need, very little is known about how to best support the development of children with language impairment and eradicate negative effects of the impairment, but Dr. Finestack is taking this issue head on.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 1 in 45 children between the ages of 7 and 14 are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. There are conflicting views on whether the number of individuals with autism is increasing or if we are just becoming better at recognizing it and more people are taking the time to have their children diagnosed. Regardless, this is a pressing issue that is facing the speech-language-hearing sciences community and I am proud to continue to be a research assistant for Dr. Finestack as she is revolutionizing the way we approach and provide language intervention for this growing population. 

Getting Ready to Work

Working as a research assistant has taught me many things that will help me as I continue my career in SLHS. Not only have I learned technical skills that will help me with my studies and research, but I have also learned other valuable life skills. I have learned what it is to be part of a lab and work with teams on projects and participate in meetings. I have learned that research is a long process that relies upon the contribution of many different individuals. I have realized just how well I am being prepared for grad school. But most importantly I am continuing to learn that SLHS is getting me ready for a meaningful, successful, and continually intriguing career as a speech language pathologist. 

In addition to my position as a research assistant and joining NSSLHA I have also had other opportunities that enable me to experience the field I am studying. I worked as a clinical assistant over the summer at a pediatric speech therapy clinic in Richmond, Virginia where I was able to get hands-on experience working in a clinical setting. Additionally, I was hired this semester by CLAgency to write the newsletter stories for this department and help promote all of the wonderful things that are going on. Together these things have given me an amazing perspective on speech-language-hearing sciences and I could not be more excited to see where else this major takes me.

The Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences may be small, but we are definitely doing big things. The University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts is focused on innovation, creativity, and community. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here in SLHS, we are using our intellectual creativity to create innovative solutions to the specific needs of our community. So yeah, I guess that is a mouthful. And I’m okay with that. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.