Guest Blog Post by Kayla Doherty – MS SLP class of 2021
In March 2019 my life changed. I was accepted into my top choice program for the Master’s in Speech-Language Pathology at Northeastern University. I will never forget the moment. I was in Naples, Florida for spring training for college softball in the warm weather. I checked my email as I finished a game and to my astonishment, there was an email from Northeastern University formally accepting me into the program. I recall celebrating the moment with my entire team, that I was finally going to begin this remarkable journey. On a bright sunny morning in September 2019, I attended my first day of graduate school orientation. Excited as ever, I met my cohort of 54 motivated aspiring Speech-Language Pathologists.
I remember in my first semester I knew I wanted to participate in research, specifically with regard to children with Cerebral Palsy (CP). This patient population has always been near and dear to my heart because I have someone close to me that has CP. With this friendship, I have always been motivated to make an impact on this populations quality of life and contributing to research in areas that have been minimally examined. I met with Dr. Kristen Allison, director of the Speech-Motor Impairment and Learning (SMILe) Lab and discussed my research interests. In conjunction with this conversation and a subsequent literature review, I found a substantial lack of research with regard to children with CP and communication breakdowns. Communication breakdowns are otherwise known as instances in which a sender’s message is unable to be understood by a listener. At that moment I began conducting a thesis project titled, “The Impact of Communication Breakdowns on Social Participation in Children with Cerebral Palsy (CP).” As I was starting my research project, I entered my first off campus clinical experience. I completed an internship at a collaborative school for children with complex communication needs (CCN) who utilized a variety of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods. As midterm approached in my second semester, our entire graduate school experience would change substantially.
In March 2020 the world was introduced to COVID-19. This global pandemic changed our lives as we had known it at the time. Classes that previously were in person alongside other classmates with no masks or social distancing, were switched to online platforms immediately. Clinical practicum placements were switched to telepractice platforms, a therapy modality most clinicians had minimal experience with at the time. Entering this new world of telepractice and online classes was a unique learning opportunity that taught me a variety of novel organizational, technical, and motivational skills. There were so many unknowns that semester, but the class of 2021 remained resilient throughout the new obstacles we were facing. Amidst the global pandemic I continued working on my research project which was now being completed remotely. Though no preliminary findings were evident at that time, I submitted my thesis project to the 2020 American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) Convention Committee hoping to present at the Convention in San Diego, California in the fall.
As the summer semester approached, in-person clinical placement opportunities began re-opening to graduate students. In June 2020 I began an internship in an in-patient rehabilitation center. Being back in-person providing services to clients showed me the effect this global pandemic was having on society. I was able to finally see the clinical impact in relation to our field. For example, due to the pandemic, we were restricted from leaving the rehabilitation floor. Prior, clinicians were able to take patients to environments outside of the treatment room to practice target skills and promote generalization. Now, due to the pandemic, we had to learn to be more creative in our treatment. Amidst this clinical experience I was juggling online summer coursework and my thesis project. To my excitement, during the summer, I received news that my thesis project had been formally accepted for presentation at the 2020 ASHA Convention, a dream come true! However, given the ongoing pandemic, the in-person convention was canceled. Even though there were still many unknowns about the future, my classmates and I were able to power through and entered our second (and final) year of graduate school.
In the fall of 2020 the program began opening back up. We were given more in-person placement opportunities and a chance to be in-person to classes, with masks, social distancing, and testing protocols in place. As a cohort we remained resilient throughout the obstacles that were thrown our way. During the fall semester, a huge future challenge was clearly in sight for me, my thesis defense. I remember so many endless nights with countless cups of coffee, attempting to perfect this project that meant so much to me personally. Along with my thesis work, I was providing services to pediatric clients via telepractice at a local private practice and completing the required coursework for the semester.
As the spring 2021 semester began, I had finally scheduled my thesis defense for April. I remember feeling both anxious and excited to present the findings of this research study. As the months passed, I continued working resiliently on this project while completing my final semester of course work and providing in-person therapy sessions to children at a local elementary school. I recall feeling how much I had to accomplish with so little time in the semester. Again, countless nights of staying up late and relying on caffeine to power through. Eventually the day finally came, my thesis defense. Anxious and excited to present the project I had been working on for the past year, I successfully defended my research. In the following weeks I decided to also present my research project at Northeastern University’s annual Research, Innovation, Scholarship and Entrepreneurial Expo (RISE). Though it took place virtually, the Expo was a remarkable learning experience where researchers in the community were able to connect and learn about projects being conducted across campus. To my astonishment, the project that has meant so much to me personally, was selected for a FOCUS award at the 2021 RISE Expo. This award showed me the level of impact you can make on an individual’s life when participating in research. I hope my research efforts alongside Dr. Allison, can one day maximize the quality of life for people with Cerebral Palsy. As clinicians, enhancing our patient’s participation in the therapy process, is an integral goal in our intervention.
As my graduate school experience comes to an end this May, I do not know how to begin to express my level of gratitude to the opportunities this program has given me and my classmates. To my cohort: we did it! I am so proud of everyone’s accomplishments throughout graduate school. Though we did not have the “traditional” graduate school experience, we remained resilient and finished strong. Now we can officially embark on our journeys as the Speech-Language Pathologists we have dreamt of becoming.