James Smaldino, ’71, ’73, and graduate intern Allison Rosenberg, ’13.
By Rebekah Bretl, ’13
As natural as communication can be for most of us, a large percentage of individuals struggle with a communication disorder. If not personally affected, we all probably know at least one of the nearly 18 million people with some form of speech or language impairment, or the 28 million with a hearing disorder in the U.S. today. With the startling commonality of these conditions, it is no wonder that the speech-language pathology and audiology industry is expected to grow by more than 23 percent in the next seven years.
SUNY Fredonia’s Department for Communication Disorders and Sciences is a large, regional contributor to the output of young professionals. With nearly 200 students, its four-year undergraduate and two-year graduate programs are among the most rigorous and competitive of their kind.
“We are all working toward the same goal,” said Alissa Berg, ’13, who earned her undergraduate degree this past May. “As speech-language pathologists, we have the ability to open doors for those who struggle with communicating, which is why I felt compelled to take part in this program.”
Throughout the program’s 58-year existence, it has generated thousands of alumni. One of its most accomplished is James Smaldino, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Fredonia (’71, ’73) and today is employed with the Head and Neck/Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Department at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. He has experienced working in a wide spectrum of settings within his industry, from elementary schools to in-home therapy to hospitals, during his 40-year career.
As one of only five graduate students at the time he earned his master’s degree, Mr. Smaldino witnessed the early stages of the department, which was then located in the basement of “Old Main” in downtown Fredonia before moving to its present Thompson Hall location in 1973.
Four decades later, he remains thankful to a variety of faculty who gave him such valuable experience to start his career. Chief among them was Dr. Henry C. Youngerman, who founded and would become the namesake for the program’s beloved clinic when it was renamed in 1983. Dr. Youngerman even helped Smaldino earn his first job as a speech language pathologist with Lake Shore Central School in Erie County (N.Y.), before he even graduated.
Today, Smaldino sees both inpatients and outpatients. He works closely with other cancer specialists after the type and stage of cancer has been determined to initiate the rehabilitative process. For some patients, he’s needed even before cancer treatment begins. Head and neck cancer may affect the patient’s ability to swallow or communicate, or even impact their appearance. Helping patients understand their “new normal” after treatment requires counseling. Smaldino stressed the importance of interactive skills, noting, “When you’re talking about head and neck cancer, it is very visible, which makes it very personal.”
Smaldino is a recipient of the Speech-Language and Hearing Association of Western New York (SHAWNY) Recognition Award and believes in sharing his experience with future practitioners. Over the last 12 years he has mentored many interns at Roswell Park, including Fredonians such as graduate student Allison Rosenberg, ’13, who worked with Smaldino during the Spring 2013 semester before being hired by a skilled nursing facility in New York’s Catskill Mountain region after graduating in May.
“If I said my experience at Roswell was amazing, it would be an understatement,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “Jim Smaldino, along with others, was beyond generous in providing his time, knowledge and patience with me, despite his very busy schedule.”
“Observing and being mindful of the patient is critical,” Smaldino added. “You have to be a detective, which, along with counseling, is something Fredonia has really begun to stress in its curriculum.”
An invaluable resource for all Fredonia “speechies,” as the students call themselves, is the team of certified and practicing professors, as well as the Henry C. Youngerman Center for Communication Disorders.
“The faculty here passes down its expertise every day,” said Daniel Parsnow, ’13. “Students learn about the operations of the field under the authority of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and by analyzing clinical therapy sessions from the Youngerman Center.”
The Youngerman Center has expanded its services since 1955 through relationships with community and state agencies, and by establishing state-of-the-art instrumentation laboratories for the evaluation and treatment of communication and hearing disorders.
A portion of the center is a preschool for children, some of whom receive therapy. This past April, it was rededicated to alumna Kristin Luther, ’00, ’01, who passed away in a tragic 2008 accident. Kristin’s family has created an endowment in her honor to help fund scholarships for graduate students who intend to work with preschool children.
The Youngerman Center isn’t just an asset to students, says Clinic Director Melissa Sidor, it is something the community benefits from as well.
“The clinic can be the first step in the right direction for diagnosis and therapy in many cases,” Ms. Sidor explains. “For many people in the region, it’s been a life-changing resource.”
“I have realized that it is not only the patient who learns and receives therapy,” Ms. Berg added. “I once observed a husband join his wife in therapy sessions…so he could help her at home. In this way, it is a group effort to help a patient achieve his or her goal, and a speech-language pathologist is the vessel that gets them there.”
Despite being such a strong program, the department and the clinic are always looking for ways to further enhance the experiences of their students and patients.
“Speech-language pathology is a demanding field of employment and continues to grow,” explained Dr. Kim Tillery, the department chair. “The clinic and department are constantly being updated because of the new technology available. We rely greatly on donations from our faithful alumni to provide new equipment – which can range from $15,000 to $30,000 – as well as scholarships for our students.”
Deanna Schmittendorf, ’11, ’13, knows exactly how valuable that experience is. She landed her first job at a private practice in Georgia as a speech-language pathologist weeks before receiving her master’s degree this past spring. “The Youngerman Center provides graduate clinicians with experience to gain clinical skills that we will be able to carry over into our future careers,” she said.
Today, the department is experiencing impressive growth, with applications and enrollment at record highs, the addition of a faculty member, an expansion of the preschool, a new meeting center for its stroke and head injury support group, and the reorganization of its graduate student clinic training room into its own space within Thompson Hall. It’s also expanded its services, such as fitting musicians with ear molds to protect their hearing when performing, and added cross-disciplinary collaborations with the university’s Music Therapy program and the College of Education’s literacy efforts.
The department was also recently re-accredited by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), which provides guidelines and a high standard of quality academic and clinic training for graduate students. “Making effective communication a human right, accessible and achievable for all,” is ASHA’s mission, and it’s something Fredonia upholds strongly to its students, Dr. Tillery attests.
There is something unique within the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences, and the “speechies” agree that nothing is more rewarding than entering a field dedicated to helping people perform some of the most important functions of day-to-day life. If you would like to learn more about how you can support the program and contribute to tomorrow’s difference makers, please contact the department at (716) 673-3202, or the Fredonia College Foundation at (716) 673-3321.