Originally published October 24, 2014
By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
Even though Victoria Alexander does not have a language disability, she understands how difficult it is for bilingual children with communication disorders to express or understand language, especially in school.
A graduate student in the Speech Language Pathology program at The University of Texas at El Paso, Alexander moved to El Paso from Juárez when she was 13 years old. She knew a few words in English, such as “window” and “door,” but she was unable to have a conversation or formulate sentences. As a result, people would speak loudly to her thinking she couldn’t hear, or ignore her.
“Coming from Mexico, I did struggle a lot with the (English) language,” Alexander recalled. “A lot of people believed that I just didn’t know how to speak, so I can relate to how (children with communication disorders) feel when they know what they want to say but they can’t say it.”
With the number of Spanish speakers growing rapidly in the United States, UTEP is preparing English-Spanish speaking speech language pathologists like Alexander, who will provide culturally and linguistically competent services to bilingual populations, with support from a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).
Connie Summers, Ph.D., and Vanessa Mueller, Ph.D., assistant professors in the Speech Language Pathology program in UTEP’s College of Health Sciences, recently were awarded $1.2 million for their five-year grant titled, “Preparing Bilingually Certified Speech Language Pathologists.”
Funds will be used to support 24 students in the graduate program in Speech Language Pathology who also are pursuing a Certificate in Bilingual Speech-Language Pathology (English/Spanish).
Alexander is among the first group of students to receive funds, which can be used for tuition, book expenses, a monthly stipend and travel expenses to conferences.
Other recipients include Alma R. Acosta, Brenda G. Compean, Manuel Mireles, Yesenia Pagan, Gabriela Rodriguez and Jessica Valles.
“As a country we keep getting more diverse,” said Summers, the project’s principal investigator. Mueller is the co-principal investigator. “With so many bilingual people, we get more bilingual children with disabilities who need services. There’s a lack of the training on how to provide bilingual services, how to do assessments with bilingual children and how to do interventions. The Certificate in Bilingual Speech-Language Pathology gives students extra training to help bilingual populations.”
OSEP is dedicated to improving results for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities from birth through 21 years old by providing leadership and financial support. Therefore, grant recipients will commit to working in pediatric settings for two years following their graduation from UTEP.
Approximately 66 percent of students in the Speech Language Pathology master’s program are bilingual. UTEP has offered a Certificate in Bilingual Speech-Language Pathology (English/Spanish) since 2006.
As part of the grant, students will take additional courses, complete a research rotation with a professor working with culturally and linguistically diverse populations, and complete clinical experiences with bilingual populations.
Alexander is in her second year of the master’s program at UTEP. She is currently taking part in a clinical practicum at Riverside Elementary School in the Gadsden Independent School District. Alexander estimates about 50 percent of the students she assists with language disabilities, expressive and receptive communication and articulation skills are bilingual.
“It’s very important to also know the cultural differences when we are assessing a child,” said Alexander, referring to the speech-language assessment tests that are used to evaluate an individual’s communication ability. “We cannot just directly translate the test (word by word from English to Spanish). We need to take into consideration their cultural variables.”
According to Summers, the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) has emphasized the need for more bilingual speech language pathologists with appropriate training.
“We are very excited that students will receive financial support to engage in the training and experiences needed to provide quality services to English-Spanish bilingual individuals who have communication disorders,” Summers said. “Students will receive the training they need to understand the unique issues in serving bilingual populations and be able to provide quality diagnostic and intervention services.”
Yesenia Pagan, who started the Speech Language Pathology program this year, said the grant has made it possible for her to quit her job and concentrate on her studies.
“It’s helped me be able to focus on academic issues and not so much on the financial worries of paying for school,” Pagan said. “I am doing a capstone project so I have to do all the research, all the studying. I don’t think people truly understand how much work is involved in being a graduate student.”
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