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How Student Success Drives Change

How one innovative program supporting graduate students is increasing diversity among speech and audiology specialists.
  • An innovative program in Syracuse University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Academic Skill Building and Networking (ALIGN), supports the retention and success of graduate students from marginalized populations. 
  • By helping students complete their degrees, the program also addresses the lack of diversity in practitioners in speech-language pathology and audiology.
  • ALIGN could serve as a model for similar programs.
Student support group, ALIGN, having a conversation together in a classroom.

Graduate students and faculty participating in the support and mentoring program ALIGN meet regularly to share experiences and gain skills.

Moses Adenyo G’23 applied to Syracuse University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Arts and Sciences knowing exactly what he wanted to do. He was going to earn his clinical doctorate degree in audiology, then return to his home country, Ghana, to offer much-needed care and work toward destigmatizing disability.

For Adenyo, it was ALIGN—an innovative program that supports first-year graduate students from underrepresented populations in audiology and speech-language pathology—that helped him gain his footing in his graduate program and develop the tools he needed to thrive. “Even though finishing my studies is what I wanted to do, when I felt like maybe I couldn’t, ALIGN gave me the support I needed—it felt like a lifesaver,” says Adenyo, who is now looking forward to graduating soon.

Student Support System

ALIGN works by delivering support in four key areas: academic skills development, peer mentoring, peer study groups and professional mentorship. Program faculty offer workshops on topics like learning and study strategies, time management, professional communication, and networking skills. Peer mentoring and group meetings provide safe, confidential spaces for sharing perspectives and advice on navigating graduate school. Each student is also paired one-on-one with a professional mentor in their field who identifies as a person of color or from an underrepresented background.

Data suggests that these systems of support can be transformative for retention and success, explains professor of communication sciences and disorders Soren Lowell, who spearheaded and designed the ALIGN program in conjunction with fellow faculty in the department including Anita Lightburn, Ellyn Riley, Jamie Desjardins and Stephanie McMillen.

A student support group sitting at a table.

Faculty members Stephanie McMillen, Jamie Desjardins, Ellyn Riley and Anita Lightburn (standing, left to right) work on a range of initiatives to support diversity and inclusion in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

For Adenyo, it was particularly meaningful to be able to commiserate with others who could relate to the challenges he faced and provide advice from a place of real understanding. “There are times we met as a group and discussed our experiences. Those group sessions were like counseling for me—I could pour my heart out and talk through whatever was on my mind,” he says.

Karisa Kirby G’23, currently in her second year in the speech-language pathology graduate program, is grateful for the professional mentorship she received. Kirby was paired with Suzanne Williams ’90, a graduate of the communication sciences and disorders program who is now a professor at DePaul University. “My mentor is amazing. Being able to talk with someone who is a person of color, who has some of the same experiences as I do, who’s been through this program and who is now successful in our field—that representation really matters,” Kirby says.

My mentor is amazing. Being able to talk with someone who is a person of color, who has some of the same experiences as I do, who’s been through this program and who is now successful in our field—that representation really matters.

Karisa Kirby G’23

While ALIGN focuses on supporting graduate students in their first year, the goal is that the connections the students establish are long lasting. “We hope this program seeds supportive relationships that participants can draw on for the rest of their time as students and also as professionals,” Lowell says.

Transforming for the Profession

Soren Lowell talking to students sitting in front of her in a classroom.

Professor Soren Lowell spearheaded the creation of ALIGN, an innovative program that supports first-year graduate students from underrepresented populations in audiology and speech-language pathology.

By helping students of color and students from diverse cultural backgrounds complete their degrees and establish themselves as professionals, ALIGN supports both individuals and the transformation of speech-language pathology and audiology practice. “Nationally, only about 8% of professionally certified speech-language pathologists and audiologists are minorities, but we serve a community of clients that is over 40% people who identify as nonwhite,” Lowell says. Cultural and linguistic background play an important role in the nuances of communication and in clinician and patient relations. “To appropriately serve our clients—to offer culturally competent services in the field of communication disorders—it’s critical we make changes in the diversity representation of our professionals,” she emphasizes.

Kirby echoes this sentiment. A Syracuse native, she says what drew her to this field is the potential to change lives. “Everyone should have the right to express their feelings, their ideas, their thoughts. There are so many disparities that people of color face, or people for whom English is not a first language. It can make all the difference for people to have health care professionals who understand their experiences or are from their culture or speak their language.”

Potential To Inspire

Three female students writing at a white board.

Students who participate in ALIGN form supportive relationships that sustain them through their program and into their professional careers.

Lowell and the team she works with say that ALIGN has inspired important conversations about the experiences of students, and the program could inspire others like it. “Developing ALIGN helped us think beyond what it takes to increase enrollment of underrepresented minority students to what we can do to help cultivate their success and maximize their potential,” Lowell explains.

The questions that guided ALIGN’s development are relevant across other fields as well, she says. These include considering the challenges international students face and the wide range of linguistic and cultural differences that might lead to misinterpretations. “We designed ALIGN specifically to address the challenges underrepresented minorities contend with by fostering community and access to mentorship from professionals and peers who have already successfully navigated the same or similar situations,” Lowell says.

Kirby chose Syracuse in part because of the ALIGN program, and this year she is proud to serve as a peer mentor. “The world is becoming more diverse every day. It’s so important that there are people with diverse backgrounds in a wide range of professional roles,” she says. “I’m very excited to be part of making this change.”

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