On the Front Lines of Human Communication: Speech, Language and Hearing Specialists

Speech, Language and Hearing Specialist working with a patient.

As the associate chair of the Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences department and Program Director for the Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Health Professions, Sherry Sancibrian doesn’t miss the irony her title and institution name present to human communication. 

“That’s a lot of words for a university,” she laughs. But Sancibrian is quick to add that although her field and school may be a mouthful, it all boils down to one simple idea:  there is so much more to speech, language and hearing sciences than most people think.

“I think people would be surprised to know just how many different settings are possible for speech-language pathologists as well as different populations that we work with,” Sancibrian says.

While some of her colleagues do work on communication or articulation, there are also many speech, language and hearing sciences professionals who work with people who have swallowing disorders.

“They might be adults who have had a stroke or a head injury or it could be a prematurely born baby who is having trouble feeding,” Sancibrian explains. “There's a whole part of our field that's dedicated to feeding and swallowing.”

There are also specialists who focus their work on cognition — thinking skills, problem-solving, and the skills needed to plan and organize a day. Clients in this area might be school-age children who have attention deficit disorder or an adult who lost skills as a result of a brain injury or progressive disease that creates an “executive function” problem. Sancibrian explains that executive function refers to “your brain's ability to help you organize and plan and handle problems, and encourages your ability to keep going when it's tough.”

And then there is also a tremendous amount of work done by specialists helping people who have trouble reading — another of the possible pathways a degree from TTUHSC SHP can open up.

“In my mind, a big advantage of speech-language pathology is that it's so flexible that you can change aspects of your career for many years,” Sancibrian says. A practitioner in this human communication field might start out working with infants and toddlers in an early intervention program and then choose to switch to a skilled nursing facility and work with patients at the other end of the age spectrum. A skilled professional who has parenthood responsibilities may opt to sync with the school schedule and work as a speech-language pathologist in a school district. Later on, they may decide it’s time to work in a hospital or start their own private practice. In other words, your degree equips you with a very mobile set of skills.

“You get one credential, but it lets you work in so many settings and with so many different people,” Sancibrian says. Graduates don't have to limit themselves to health care or school settings. They can use the Certificate of Clinical Competence and couple it with specialized training in continuing education to switch the populations they work with or the settings in which they practice.

“We work both in health care and in education and can go back and forth,” says Sancibrian.

Speech, Language and Hearing Specialist working with a patient.

Evolution of the Field

Sancibrian has seen many changes in the field of human communication over the 35 years she has been at TTUHSC SHP.

“My five-year plan kind of went awry,” she laughs. At the start of her work, she said she could not have imagined the current trend of offering services through telepractice.

“We saw everyone face to face,” she explains. “But of course when I started to work, we also all had big, clunky computers with floppy disks in them, so things are a little different now.”

In addition to the advances in technology, the last decade has brought significant growth in the aging population, resulting in shortages of health care workers in settings like skilled nursing facilities and assisted living centers.

“Here come the baby boomers!” Sancibrian says. While she acknowledges that there has always been a segment of the speech-language pathology profession that works with older populations, now there's an even greater need.

“They're a large group influencing public policy, so there's just more awareness of providing services for people in that generation,” Sancibrian notes. “When I first started in the field, more than half of the profession worked in public schools. Now, it's split fairly evenly between educational settings and health care settings.”

The TTUHSC SHP Advantage

With the growth in opportunity comes greater demand for programs to accommodate new students. Sancibrian believes TTUHSC SHP has more to offer than its competitors.

“We have the wonderful advantage of being in a health care setting where our students get more experience with interprofessional education and practicum than I think is typical in most graduate programs in our field.”

TTUHSC SHP students work with cohorts studying a variety of health professions such as nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, medicine, counseling, as well as their peers in the audiology programs.

Instead of an occasional arranged interaction, Sancibrian says it’s part of everyday education and practice at TTUHSC SHP.

“When we talk to students when they’re leaving the program, without exception, that interaction is one of the advantages they point out,” Sancibrian says. “The opportunity to train with other disciplines so that from the beginning you have knowledge of and appreciation for those related professions — it’s pretty special.”

A Flexible Path for a Changing World

Sancibrian is a big proponent of the flexibility afforded by studying speech, language and hearing. 

“Maybe you’re interested in science and health-related information but you’re also drawn to education. Maybe you thought you might want to be a teacher or thought you might want to be a doctor or a nurse, but neither of those is a great fit and you also love people enough to interact or be interested in providing counseling — then speech pathology is a really good fit,” she says.  “You get to do all of that. I always say, if you’re ever bored as a speech pathologist, that is your own fault because there are so many other choices, so many things you can do,” Sancibrian says. “And you never know where life is going to take you.”

Whatever the geographical area you choose for your job hunt, Sancibrian promises there will always be work for a speech-language pathologist.

“There is always home health. The schools always need somebody. Or there might be a place for you at a small clinic or a tiny hospital,” Sancibrian says. “It’s so flexible and so portable that you really never have to worry about whether or not you’re going to find work.”

For students who may find themselves relocating often with military partners or for other reasons, Sancibrian says telepractice opportunities are providing even wider possibilities. “If you work for a company that provides services by telepractice, you do it from your own home so it doesn’t matter where you live,” she says. “Telepractice is changing everything. I am sure it will change even more than I can imagine right now.”

Creative Service to the Underserved

Sancibrian is hesitant to describe the typical student who opts to study speech, language and hearing at TTUHSC SHP. They come from all over Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and even more distant states.

But one thing they all have in common once they arrive is a focus on providing care for underserved populations.

Underserved populations could be found in rural areas or in downtown Houston. Both Texas and surrounding states have a large quantity of HPSAs — Health Professional Shortage Areas.

“I think that is our specialty,” Sancibrian says, “figuring out creative ways to serve those underserved populations that our students will be able to take with them into their careers wherever they end up.”

A Passionate Staff

Much like the students who attend TTUHSC SHP, the faculty is equally varied. A significant number of them have clinical backgrounds, while others have been focused on research their entire careers.

A number of faculty have specialty areas. For instance, one specializes in working with children with hearing impairments. Another faculty member specializes in working with patients who need augmentative communication — patients who either don’t talk at all or will never be able to speak clearly enough and need to find some other way to communicate.

Sancibrian sees mostly people with autism, while another colleague primarily works with patients with aphasia.

“We have faculty representing pretty much all of the specialty areas within our field. They teach that specialty and they also supervise those cases in our clinic,” Sancibrian says. “That’s also something a little bit unique about our program — there are a lot of universities that have a separation between academic or teaching faculty and their clinical faculty. That’s not really true for us. If you take a course in adult language disorders like aphasia, then it’s very likely you will be supervised in the clinic by that very same faculty member. For us, since our faculty goes back and forth between the classroom and the clinic, that information is easily connected.”

The resulting experience mimics more of an apprentice model.

“If I’m in the clinic, I’m working with cases in the areas that are really my expertise, like autism,” Sancibrian explains. “That means I know a lot about that subject and I can guide the students and do demonstration therapy for them and allow them to see how to work with that particular patient.”

The same is true of the other faculty, she says.

And faculty aren’t just experts in an area — they feel passionate about what they are teaching and about the areas they are supervising in clinic.

“We tease each other. We all think that what we teach is the best,” Sancibrian says.  She notes that sometimes students coming into the program feel like they have their mind made up that they are definitely going to work with pediatric cases or they are definitely going to work with geriatric ones. However, those early preferences don’t always stick.

“Once they get in our classes, we’re always asking, ‘Now isn’t this the greatest?’” she says and laughs. Eventually, the students do find the area that calls to them personally, she says, but the individual passion of the instructors leading them can have a tremendous influence on their choices.

Personal passion also inspires which classes faculty are assigned to teach.

“Faculty aren’t just assigned a class and they do it because that’s their assignment. We listen to what people care a lot about and feel strongly that they have expertise in,” she says. “So far, we’ve been pretty lucky in being able to have people teach things that they feel very comfortable with and have experience with.”

The TTUHSC SHP Difference

Human communication is important to Sancibrian in other ways — she says she asked her most recent graduating class to send her feedback about their experiences. One student wrote, “My experience in the speech-language pathology program at TTUHSC was so much more than I could have imagined and one I’ll always be profoundly grateful for. This program is so much more than academics, it’s a family that supports you and pushes you to become the best you can be.”

Sancibrian couldn’t agree more. “It’s more than just classes and clinical assignments. Everybody bonds and everybody helps everybody else,” she says. “ And you know that you are surrounded by people pulling for you to be the best clinician possible at the end of those two years.”

To learn more about the all the speech, language and hearing programs at TTUHSC SHP, please visit our program page. To speak with an admissions advisor, please contact the SHP Office of Admissions and Student Affairs by email at health.professions@ttuhsc.edu or call 806-743-3220. You can also follow the TTUHSC School of Health Professions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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