By Molly Loughman
In January 2019, 28 students from across the United States were the first to enroll in the online Master of Science program for Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), known around campus as “Speech@Emerson.” In August, they graduated with their master’s degree—the first step toward becoming certified speech-language pathologists—leading the way for more than 700 others now enrolled in the program.
“We were the first to experience this, and I think that gave us all a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” says Lauren Gerstmann, MS ’20, a resident of Culver City, California, and the first student to take every course Speech@Emerson has to offer, beginning with the foundational coursework offered in Fall 2018.
“Plus, I think we had a uniquely collaborative experience; the program was evolving with us and we got to be a part of that,” Gerstmann added. “I was always surprised, because no matter how much I thought I’d gotten from the asynchronous material, it was not only the facilitators and course developers who’d add more perspective to it during the synchronous live sessions, but also the other people in the program who came from different experiences. It really felt like a collaborative learning experience.”
“Our goal is to provide a program that emulates what we do on campus with our students in the [on-campus] CSD master’s program,” says Joanne Lasker, associate professor and inaugural Speech@Emerson program director.
In addition to operating in 44 of America’s 50 states, Spech@Emerson makes the online program accessible to people of diverse racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This is important because the current field of SLP professionals is overwhelmingly white and female, and does not reflect the diversity of clients they serve, explains Lauren Nehilla, MS ’06, a CSD alumna and licensed speech language pathologist (SLP). Nehilla has served as Speech@Emerson associate director, and now succeeds Lasker as program director.
“What’s really exciting about Speech@Emerson is the potential to bring our graduate program to far more people, in far more places, in far more circumstances than we would be able to if those students needed to come to Boston for two years,” says Nehilla. “We’re able to have diverse students in different [stages] of their life. It serves people in a lot of directions: The importance of having a diverse body of SLPs, and the importance of serving diverse clients and the importance of a diverse student body.”
With all courses running three times a year via a three-semester model, Speech@Emerson accepts students at three points throughout the year (January, May, and September). Unlike CSD’s on-campus master’s program, Speech@Emerson offers two program tracks: a five-term plan of study (two years) and a nine-term plan of study (three years). If electing to do the nine-term route, a student is able to spread out the coursework over a longer period of time. Courses are offered in a particular sequence. “And we hold fast to that particular sequence, because we believe that’s important for student learning,” adds Lasker.
The virtual program is accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Speech@Emerson collaborates with numerous alumni and CSD professionals to facilitate sections of 15 students in each of the courses.
THREE CORE COMPONENTS
Asynchronous & Synchronous Learning
Speech@Emerson students learn through a combination of asynchronous and synchronous experiences. They access asynchronous content, such as videos and readings, housed within dedicated course sites, and also participate in weekly synchronous, real-time sessions with course facilitators. Course facilitators illustrate and highlight concepts and help students apply what they have learned asynchronously.
Emma Provenzano, MS‘20 considers the asynchronous material as the “meat and potatoes” of the program. “You need to make sure you’re digesting the materials. It’s a lot to do, but it’s also interesting. I liked watching the lectures. They made it interesting and easy to understand.”
Provenzano was working in Somerville (Massachusetts) Public Schools as a Spanish interpreter/translator for four years before she pursued Speech@Emerson’s five-semester track in January 2019, joining its first cohort.
“I remember going into my first class and it felt like The Brady Bunch, we were a bunch of little squares in a grid. Everybody was from all over the country,” says Provenzano. “Over time, we looked forward to the small breakout groups because we got to chat a little bit, and get that social piece we were missing out on. We all put in the work to make the most of the program.”
Clinical Placement Experiences
Earning a master’s degree in SLP involves four community practicum experiences (in-person clinical placements) in the student’s own community. In partnership with the online learning management firm 2U, which helped Emerson develop the program, the Speech@Emerson team identifies community placement sites around the country, where students obtain the clinical service hours required for SLP certification.
After 18 years working in colon cancer prevention research, Gerstmann saw Emerson as an opportunity to start over with a new career in SLP through its two-year track, instead of what would have been six years if she pursued a local SLP program. Speech@Emerson’s clinical placements allowed Gerstmann to establish professional SLP relationships in her own community. “When I started doing my homework, I could not believe what I could do as an SLP,” Gerstmann noted.
During their first year, the 2020 cohort worked with a virtual simulation of patients to become familiar with conducting client evaluations and making treatment decisions. “It wasn’t with real people, but it was a helpful bridge for what we would be seeing in real life,” says Provenzano. “Then we got the internships, and that’s where we synthesize what we had been learning and put it into practice.”
Provenzano has participated in three community clinical placements. One was working with infants and toddlers at the Mystic Valley Early Intervention Program in Woburn, Massachusetts. She conducted pediatric feeding therapy for children with medical complexities or on the autism spectrum. Her second placement was at Somerville Public Schools, working alongside an SLP as a graduate intern, conducting bilingual Spanish-English evaluations. Her third was at Peer Project Therapy from the Heart, an occupational therapy and SLP private practice in Beverly, Massachusetts, where she stayed with the same supervisor for eight months.
“My favorite part was the internships. That’s where I think I learned the most about everything, because it was real-time. I learned to struggle through a therapy session, and learned I need a plan A,B,C, and even D to be flexible. I think that’s a valuable skill for a clinician, especially working with children,” says Provenzano.
The Immersion Experience
Another component of the Speech@Emerson program is the Immersion Experience — also known as “Immersion Weekend,” since it typically takes place over the last four days of each semester on Emerson’s Boston campus.
Each student attends two Immersions, designed as opportunities to meet faculty and peers in person, and experience hands-on Emerson SLP training. Students attend their first Immersion immediately preceding their first clinical practicum. During students’ first Immersions, they conduct hearing screenings using audiometers, practice oral mechanism exams on each other, and conduct preschool language screens. Students start building their portfolio, meet with advisors , and attend placement preparation meetings.
Because of COVID-19, Speech@Emerson held the most recent Immersion Weekend virtually, from August 20-23. August Immersion included both beginning students and graduating students in the program. The graduating students who participated in Immersion II explored topics related to people with acquired medical conditions who may experience challenges in speech, language, cognition, and swallowing. They attended a seminar on person-centered care/intervention across the lifespan.
“Emerson CSD has always been a special space for me,” says Nehilla. “I love to be a part of something that’s effecting such meaningful change in a field that I’m so passionate about, and to be doing it a place that’s so meaningful to me as a professional — [Emerson] is where it all started for me as an SLP.”
CLASS OF 2020
“This is a really special cohort of students,” says Lasker. “They’ve experienced the first iteration of every course. They’ve been true pioneers.They were really willing to jump into a program based on the reputation of Emerson College and the strength of our CSD on-campus master’s program. They were willing to participate as we were developing the program. I think they’re incredibly cohesive.”
Lasker added that after all the work students put into obtaining their MS in Speech-Language Pathology, there are still a few more steps to go before landing jobs in the field.
“They’re very excited because now they’re achieving all of these milestones that we want to see in our master’s students. They’re passing our departmental comprehensive exams, passing the national PRAXIS exam in speech-language pathology, acquiring all of the required clock hours, and now ultimately, they’re finding positions as clinical fellows.”
Provenzano credits the program’s growth to the friendly and inspiring community of Emerson College. “You’re never alone. And I think that Emerson does a really great job in letting you know that. Your professors are always there to help. Emerson is welcoming and it feels nice to be an alum,” she said. Provenzano, who will be working this school year with Chelsea (Massachusetts) Public Schools, on a path to becoming a bilingual SLP by conducting teletherapy with a caseload of students.
The Class of 2020 helped shape the development of the Speech@Emerson program, providing feedback to the faculty since their first Immersion weekend. “We always want to listen carefully to our students because speech language pathology is such a small field. We’re admitting students to the program with the idea they’ll be our future colleagues and we want to pay strong attention to what they say is working or not for them,” says Lasker.
The official graduation for Speech@Emerson’s Class of 2020 will take place during an in-person ceremony when it’s safe to fully return to campus. However, on August 23, at the end of the most recent Immersion Weekend, a virtual celebration was held to recognize the historic cohort and their newly earned SLP master’s degrees.
The celebration also recognized Joanne Lasker for her outstanding efforts as director, professor, mentor, and advisor. In her honor, the inaugural Joanne P. Lasker Graduate Program Director Award was presented to Gerstmann, recognizing her academic excellence, collaboration and professionalism.
“It was a huge, huge honor, and a shock because we didn’t know about it,” says Gerstmann. “Frankly, I think every single person in our cohort deserved it — it was an amazing group of people. We worked on projects all the time together, that the program is really designed to be collaborative, not competitive… I feel really, really excited and very well prepared, but I will miss keeping in touch with everyone and having that on my calendar.”
Speech@Emerson’s second cohort of 36 students will graduate this December, with the third cohort of 50 students next April 20 and the fourth cohort of 90 students next August.