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A Graduate Student’s Experience with COVID-19 by Sarah Reeves

“…make sure to really pay attention to these things because in just a few months, you’ll be out in your externship sites as a student and you’re going to want to do well,” my professor had told us, minutes before ending our neurogenic language and cognitive disorders class in late February of 2020. “My advice to you is to be better than prepared. And that starts now.”

I, along with my fellow graduate students, exited the lecture hall in high spirits, looking forward to spring break, a week off from our studies and working at the speech clinic. A much-needed break for a moment to spend time with family. I glanced at my watch, knowing I had just a few hours to get to the airport for a flight to Rhode Island to see my fiancé who had been stationed there for the past 3 months.

I loved what I was studying and what I was preparing to become – a speech-language pathologist – but I also hadn’t seen the man I love, and what graduate student doesn’t embrace spring break when they still had it?

I had no idea as I boarded that plane on March 6, 2020 hearing TVs blaring overhead about the novel coronavirus and the possibility of it coming here, to the United States what this spring break would really turn out to be. Unbeknownst to me, as the plane stretched her wings during takeoff, the global pandemic was beginning it’s course of halting time for many people around the world.

My spring break was cut off abruptly when my fiancé and I were taking a walk down 40 Steps in Newport overlooking the north Atlantic Ocean when 2020 decided to really take things up a notch.

(photo: 40 Steps overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean)

I had received an email alert from my university informing me that spring break will be extended a week to allow them to establish social distancing practices and procedures. Elated, my fiancé and I practically danced and sang alongside the north Atlantic Ocean, celebrating the fact we could spend more time together and not quite understanding the severity of the situation.

Despite my wishes to spend more time in Rhode Island, I woke up one morning to find news stations showing panicked travelers in airports, some deserted, with crowded security lines, and it was then we decided for me to go home in case traveling stopped completely.

A week after I returned home, 49 states issued mandatory stay-at-home orders to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19. I never stepped foot on my university again or saw any of my colleagues. I was thankful for one of my good friends giving me a hug before we left for spring break. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had jokingly said that something told her to give me a hug before I left.

Just in case.

The year 2020 never stopped taking me, and many others, by surprise as months of quarantining went on and I found myself moving to Norfolk, Virginia to be together with my fiancé that Fall. There, I would start my first semester as a graduate student no longer working at the university speech clinic, but at a public school district.

(photo caption: prepping for therapy)

My supervisor, who had worked there for over 20 years, had shared with me that this would not be the typical experience. We would conduct all therapy online, using Zoom, except for formal evaluations where we would conduct those in a special room with plenty of measures to ensure social distancing.

She had an entire closet overfilled with supplies – Mr. Potato Heads, board games, books – all materials we could use for therapy. But it all came back to being restricted to a computer screen, so we had to change our perspective and use online resources like Boom Cards, ebooks, YouTube, etc.

Despite the challenges I faced, I reminded myself that this was also a challenging time for the kids, too. Young children who were used to being able to come to school to see their classmates and teachers were restricted to staying at home. They were on the computer for more than 6 hours a day for classes and other therapy services. Truly, we were just another face to them.

During my semester spent working there, I had gotten quite close with the kids even though we interacted through a computer screen. There was a nonverbal child who enjoyed using his assistive technology device to show his humor, followed by a toothy grin; there was a little boy and a girl who were overjoyed to show me their Christmas decorations when winter came; there was a young girl who loved to take breaks and show me how to dance to Jack Hartmann.

(photo credit: Jack Hartmann’s Holiday Dance)

One day in November, I had one session that reminded me why I chose to go into speech language pathology. Things were dragging on at this point. Around us, other schools had been welcoming kids to their doors only to shut down after a week due to COVID-19 transmission. Time seemed to stand still, yet the new year was approaching, and everyone’s breath was hitched, wondering what 2021 would bring.

I worked with two young boys who both stuttered (which will have pseudo names to protect identity). The one boy, Deion, appeared introverted and quiet, and the other boy, Ezra, was silly, outgoing, and liked to share jokes with me whenever our sessions started.

I had become concerned when that same happy-go-lucky boy shared with me that outside of speech therapy, his stuttering got so bad that he didn’t want to talk.

At all.

“It’s 110% bad,” Ezra had remarked. “So bad that my friends poke fun at me.”

For our sessions, we had been using fluency shaping techniques to help their speech become more fluent. We practiced things like stretching out the syllables, using a slow rate of speech, and using an easy onset. As soon as Ezra shared his difficulties he had outside of speech, though, I knew then that I needed to do more than address his stuttering disorder.

There is more to stuttering than disfluent speech. It is a complex and often misunderstood disorder that can cause individuals to have feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, of discomfort about their speech. A lot of individuals who stutter feel frustration when trying to communicate and even possibly a strong sense of humiliation during extremely difficult speaking situations. These feelings can often translate to their self-esteem and how they perceive themselves.

(Photo credit: The stuttering iceberg visual I used in therapy)

The very next session, I started by sharing why I became a speech therapist and other dreams I wanted to accomplish. Then, I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

At first, I was met with heavy silences.

Then Deion mumbled, “I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to play the guitar, but I don’t think I could sing well. I can’t exactly talk normal.”

When prompted again, Ezra had nothing to say. Over on his end, he had started humming a theme to Fortnite, his favorite video game. It had been the first time he was rendered speechless during our sessions.

It was then I shared with them that there have been others who stuttered who had pursued and achieved their dreams.

I shared with them how the famous musician and singer, Elvis Presley, experienced stuttering in his life, how he often shared that his stutters especially got worse when he was nervous or excited.

I shared with them how the famous actor Bruce Willis was a person who stuttered despite being filmed in over 60 movies and during one interview, he actually shared how acting seemed to help his stuttering.

I shared with them how Albert Einstein, universally acknowledged to be one of the two greatest physicists of all time, also was a person who stuttered.

Lastly, I shared with them that our newly appointed Presidential Elect, Joe Biden, was a person who stuttered. I showed them an interview where Mr. Biden had admitted at one point, it could take him over a minute to say a sentence, due to his stuttering.

At hearing that, the boys’ mouths dropped to the ground.

“But Einstein!” Deion exclaimed. “How could he stutter? He’s a genius!”

“And the president?” Ezra remarked, pulling the camera closer to his face, as if not believing the image right before him. “He makes speeches all the time—how can he be president and stutter?”

I shared with them that stuttering does not make you less than anything you want to be. Stuttering will not stop you from being whoever you want to be—whether that is a musician or singer, or an actor, or the president of the United States. People who stutter are as smart and as capable as anyone else. History was filled of exceptionally smart, talented, and successful people who stuttered.

There was another heavy silence.

Suddenly, Dieon said, “I changed my mind. I want to be a math teacher- ”

I want to be an astronaut,” cut in Ezra.

“-either a math teacher, or maybe a singer and a guitar player, like Bruno Mars.”

“I could also be a football player.”

“I want to work with NASA and dance on the moon, like I do on Fortnite…Maybe see Mars one day!”

The boys were suddenly lit with inspiration, so excited that they could not seem to hold still. They had probably been told many damaging things about their speech – that they weren’t intelligent because they couldn’t talk “normal,” or that they couldn’t do something because they stuttered when they spoke, or they couldn’t hold an authoritative position because of their stutter.

And it was during that therapy session, as the boys continued exclaiming their aspirations and dreams, that I was reminded of why I chose to go into the field of speech-language pathology. COVID-19 seemed to stop time itself during this year and brought upon many challenges for everyone. Being a new graduate student and coming into these kids’ lives was something I will never forget. Like them, I was a student still learning, and that day they helped me understand something I will never forget.

That even with a global pandemic, the sky is not the limit, it is only the beginning.