Working as a speech-language pathology assistant (SLPA) is a good way to check out the field of speech-language pathology before you commit to earning your graduate degree. For this post, we spoke with two USAHS alumna who were working as SLPAs when they entered our Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP) program. We found out why they decided to make the move from SLPA to becoming a full-fledged speech-language pathologist (SLP), how their professional roles have changed, and what exciting things they are doing now in their careers.
Broadening Her Theoretical Perspective
During a year of teaching English and studying Spanish in Spain, Karina Lee, CCC-SLP ’20, confirmed her passion for speech and language. Upon returning home to South Florida, she earned a graduate certificate in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) and became a licensed SLPA.
At the not-for-profit Crystal Academy in Coral Gables, Lee provided speech and language therapy for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disorders. Although she enjoyed her role as an SLPA, she wasn’t qualified to diagnose patients. “I knew what I had to do in my job—but I didn’t know why I was doing it,” Lee says. “I like to know how things work.” She wanted to gain the broad theoretical background and the credentials of an SLP.
Lee applied to USAHS’ MS-SLP program because it was “online, faster than most SLP programs, and very interactive,” she says. “It allowed me to stay in Miami and keep my job.” The program features four in-person residency weeks, which she attended in Austin (though the final residency was held virtually due to the pandemic). “I loved that I had such a great excuse to check out Austin.”
During the residencies, she enjoyed meeting her cohort in person—and she’s still close friends with three classmates. “The professors were great,” she adds. “Dr. Savage made me feel super comfortable before, during, and after the program.” Her clinical practica gave her experience working in a variety of settings, including private practice, schools, and teletherapy.
After graduating, Lee moved north to Boca Raton to work in a private practice in which about 70% of her clients are Autistic. She specializes in feeding therapy—working with children with oral motor and oral processing deficits, limited diets, sensory aversions, and difficult feeding behaviors. She also focuses on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which comprises all the ways to communicate outside of standard verbal communication, including signing, picture communication systems, and high-tech speech-generating devices. She says,
“AAC is a way for people to communicate—which is a basic human right.”
One of Lee’s patients, “Leora,” is a 17-year-old with ASD who is non-speaking and who uses an AAC speech-generating device to communicate. Lee created a case study about Leora for Simucase, a virtual learning platform in which members observe, assess, diagnose, and provide intervention for actual patients. “Leora is able to make requests and label a variety of objects, but she has a much harder time using verbs,” Lee says. “In our case study, students get to see me collaborate with Leora’s occupational therapist. I coach the OT on how to teach her verbs by modeling the verbs on her AAC device. The students follow along and target her goal for using action verbs in a structured activity with flashcards. I’m hoping our Simucase can teach students to be more comfortable and confident working on AAC with teenagers—and learn to collaborate with OTs.”
Alongside her day job, Lee is developing a private practice in which she provides boutique-style speech, language, and feeding therapy services individualized to each child’s specific needs, whether in home, at school, or via teletherapy.
She is also writing a children’s book to help neurotypical children and parents better understand Autistic children, using language that celebrates the neurodiversity movement. She explains, “I’ve learned that the Autism community prefers identify-first language, such as ‘Autistic person.’ If it’s seen more like something they ‘carry’ (like ‘a person with autism’), it seems like it’s something that can be taken away—and it’s not.”
Working with a Jamaican University
Lee is engaging in her profession in other impressive ways—such as volunteering as an SLP liaison to Mico University College in Kingston, Jamaica. The university’s Child Assessment and Research in Education (CARE) Centre provides special education services to schoolkids with learning differences, including ASD. Lee answered the center’s call for volunteers to advise Shanique Westcarr, MSCP, the center’s manager and clinical psychologist, in Zoom meetings.
“As the psychologist, Ms. Westcarr sees many children with difficulties in communication,” Lee says. “But once she identifies these children, many of their parents and teachers are then at a standstill on how to actually help them. There are only a few SLPs on the island, and even getting a formal diagnosis is difficult.” Lee consulted with Westcarr about red flags for autism, differential diagnoses, and developmental speech and language milestones. She also sent resources for teachers and parents to use to improve a child’s speech and language.
“There are so many different things I can do with this degree,” she says. “I’ll never get bored.”
Learning with Technology
Bethany Willoughby, CCC-SLP ’20, grew up working in healthcare. Her mother owned Amana Rose, a franchise of nursing homes in Texas. Throughout her teenage years, Willoughby volunteered as an assistant to occupational therapists. She developed an interest in dysphagia (swallowing disorders), which she explored in college through a double major in SLP & audiology and child learning development. After graduating, she worked for a year as a licensed SLPA.
However, it was always her plan to earn her graduate degree and become an SLP, because in Texas, SLPAs are not licensed to treat swallowing. “I also wanted to be the one who did the assessments and made the goals,” Willoughby says.
“As an assistant, I could only implement the goals. Now that I’m an SLP, I can create goals that I feel fit the patient best—and implement them.”
She applied to USAHS’ MS-SLP program and got in, though she needed to take one leveling course first. She says that learning with technology was one of her favorite aspects of the program. In the Austin simulation center, her class practiced using an endoscope and nasopharyngoscopes, instruments used to examine the throat and vocal folds to diagnose voice and swallowing disorders. Willougby volunteered to be a “guinea pig” for the class, letting a practitioner insert the nasopharyngoscope into her nose. The camera projected a mirror image of what it saw; Willoughby could watch food and liquid going down her own throat. “It was a little painful—but cool,” she says. “And it was enlightening to know what my patient would experience.” She believes it’s important for students to volunteer for real-world learning opportunities.
“If you volunteer, you don’t forget that moment. It’s burned into your brain.”
Then when a mobile van visited campus to expose speech students to modified barium swallow study (MBSS) technology, Willoughby helped to perform swallow studies on patients from the local community. She says this experience was a “game-changer” for her career. “Having practiced with all this technology,” she says, “I was so much more prepared for my job than my coworkers who went to other schools. I knew just what to do on my first day. I’m teaching my coworkers about what I learned. My clinical fellowship mentor said, ‘You are a seasoned SLP right out of school.’”
The Value of Motivation
She also enjoyed learning about the brain in the wet lab. “I touched the brain of a person with dementia,” she says. “It was tiny from atrophy. Now when I see a brain on imaging, I remember feeling it; I smell the formaldehyde.” Other highlights included an extended class visit to an Austin aphasia clinic, a training in how to work with people with dementia, and a course on counseling patients.
“I saw that if I used all the tools the teacher gave me, I would succeed,” Willoughby says. “I didn’t stop at the textbook. I would take the skills I’d learned about research—and do more research. If you’re motivated, the program is a nice fit. If you try to coast through, it won’t work for you. But all the tools are there.” She says that program director Meghan Savage, CCC-SLP, PhD, was an influential mentor for her. “You can’t ask for more in terms of motivation. She always had my back. We’re still in touch.”
Given that she and her husband were raising a young daughter, Willoughby appreciated that the lectures and coursework for the MS-SLP program were online. “I was available for my daughter when she needed me,” she says.
“I would wake up at 5 to do my homework for two hours before my daughter woke up. And I would work for two hours after she went to bed. You won’t find a campus that lets you come in at 5 a.m.”
Willoughby had thought her future career would center around kids, but during a practicum within a skilled nursing facility, she realized she wanted to focus on seniors. “I had grown up in the nursing home environment,” she says. “It was familiar; I was good at building relationships. I would paint their fingernails, brush their hair. Older people are more relatable. We can have an adult conversation.”
Now, Willoughby is working in Dallas at Select Rehabilitation, a rehabilitation services provider with facilities across the country. The building where she works is three-quarters of a mile long, she says, with skilled nursing, memory care, assisted living, and inpatient rehab. “You learn fast in a building like that. I work with a massive variety of people with a huge gap in abilities.” Having graduated during the pandemic, she began her job wearing full PPE, helping COVID patients regain their swallowing ability post-ventilator. “That was my entry into the real world,” she says.
Willoughby says that the one advantage to being an SLPA is that they don’t need to do nearly as much paperwork as SLPs. “I enjoyed getting to write a note about the patient’s session, and that was all the paperwork I had to do.” However, as an SLP, she can assess and treat dysphagia, as well as speech, language, and cognitive disorders. Without her MS-SLP degree, she would not be allowed to work in geriatric healthcare because it involves so much dysphagia. She also wouldn’t be able to start her own aphasia clinic, which she hopes to do someday. She says, “I enjoy working in geriatrics because I can see how much help is genuinely needed in those populations, so I feel like I’m making a difference.”
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP) program. Designed for working students, the MS-SLP is an online program with four required on-campus residencies on either the USAHS Austin or Dallas campus. The program offers two intakes per year, in January and September. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Prepare to make a difference in the lives of clients across the lifespan with a meaningful career in speech therapy!
For students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than communications sciences and disorders (CSD) or SLP and for students with a CSD or SLP degree whose undergraduate program did not include the required leveling coursework, we offer SLP leveling courses for completing the necessary prerequisites to enter the graduate program.
The Master of Science (M.S.) education program in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences is a Candidate for Accreditation by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA) of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2200 Research Boulevard, #310, Rockville, MD 20850, 800-498-2071 or 301-296-5700. Candidacy is a “preaccreditation” status with the CAA, awarded to developing or emerging programs for a maximum period of 5 years.