Recent decades have been instrumental in highlighting the systemic forces that act as a barrier to underrepresented students and professionals in higher education. Additionally, some higher educational programs continue to find challenges with recruiting and retaining a diverse group of students. One such field is the field of speech-language pathology (SLP). According to a study conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in 2019, the SLP field included 96.3% female, 91.8% White, and 94.1% non-Hispanic or Latinx clinicians (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2020). Using an SLP program as a case study, this paper will highlight the incremental steps taken in a time of budgetary constraints to redefine the role of a graduate assistant to advance awareness of the SLP program and engage in inclusive recruitment practices. This case study may serve as a model for administrators to implement in the programs they support.
Redefining the Graduate Assistantship Focus
A critical first step in utilizing the GA position to advance inclusive recruitment initiatives was to redefine the purpose of the position. Traditionally, GA positions fall into research or teaching responsibilities, in which the GA supports a faculty member with their specific research agenda or assigned teaching responsibilities (Ethington & Pisani, 1993). However, to effectively engage in this work, a less traditional approach to the GA position was necessary. The GG work focused on program outreach, event plannning, networking, web page design, program promotion matrerial development, and social media campaigns. This commitment to use the GA role outside traditional faculty areas of expertise shifted resources away from supporting faculty workload and toward improvement on programmatic access. Redefining the purpose of the GA position preserved the essence of supporting a GA toward professional development in the field but also galvanized others to contribute and reduced the insular nature of the work. The inclusive practices in the small SLP program grew to include the department chair, the GA, an assistant professor, and an undergraduate research student. Department members who were not able to contribute in an official capacity were still eager to learn from the group, engage in conversation, and share out with their network connections.
Compiling Data to Inform Inclusive Planning
Upon redefining the GA position, the GA and the department chair began drafting the overall mission and goals that would guide the work. Both the GA and the department chair recognized that they were members of the majority and novices to the evidence base of equity and inclusion. Tapping into the intellectual vitality of the academic setting, the GA reviewed relevant information about the barriers faced by students from underrepresented backgrounds in the context of higher education and SLP programs. The following themes emerged from the literature:
- Recognize the importance of mentorship and community support for underrepresented students (Rodriguez, 2016; Ginsberg, 2018, Fuse, 2018),
- Utilize strategies to increase awareness of the SLP profession earlier in the career development process (Bellon-Harn & Weinbaum, 2017; Rodriguez, 2016),
- Provide intentional resources and student planning in order to lessen the financial burden of graduate school (Bellon-Harn & Weinbaum, 2017; Fuse, 2018), and
- Embody a strengths-based approach that values diversity and the unique skills of underrepresented students (Luedke et al., 2019).
The emerging themes increased our awareness of existing barriers, but they also provided focus for the next step, which was to capture the current underrepresented perspectives in the region. In addition to historical legacy, the current socio-political context shapes the landscape of opportunities and barriers for inclusion. Therefore, the team deemed it necessary to identify current perspectives of underrepresented students and practicing SLPs in the region through interviews. The GA interviewed individuals in the field who self-identified with under-represented backgrounds (i.e., racial/ethnic minorities, low socioeconomic status, LGBTQIA+, first-generation college students, first language not English, and/or international).
The interviews revealed that the majority of respondents became interested in the field because of a direct experience with a client or professional. Interest in the field was maintained through intrinsic feelings of pride and passion as well as extrinsic support from colleagues and clients. The most commonly reported barriers were the degree requirements (cost, competition, and graduate degree). Participants suggested that increasing awareness of the profession and promoting messages of belonging through targeted recruitment and flexible and supportive programming would decrease barriers to underrepresented students.
Developing Action Steps in Alignment with Data
The emergent themes from the literature and the interviews indicated that awareness and accessibility of the SLP profession were both current and historical barriers. Understanding the available resources, the team discussed feasible action steps along these two themes. See Table 1 for the activities in each category.
Barriers and Actionable Steps Identified.
|Barrier Identified||Action Steps|
|Lack of Awareness||● Deliver presentations for regional middle and high school students
● Utilize social media accounts for sharing recent events and accomplishments related to SLP
● Host information sessions (in-person and virtual)
● Provide training for campus student advisors regarding SLP profession
● Collaborate with student groups on campus to support and recruit current underrepresented students
|Lack of Access||● Remove GRE requirement from graduate admission requirements
● Translate SLP informational materials into Spanish
● Create and caption videos for SLP graduate application process
● Publish fees and funding information on the department website
● List student groups, resources, and scholarships for underrepresented students on the department website
The awareness initiatives required the faculty administrator to pass on institutional knowledge to the GA. The GA was then tasked with networking with stakeholders in various departments or divisions on campus. Partnerships with the college Recruitment and Retention Program Advisor, the Director of the TRIO programs, the Director of Pre-College Programs, and the Science Outreach program facilitated the distribution of program materials and virtual presentations with students and professionals. To further increase awareness of the profession, the GA was tasked with developing content to engage the digital community. Social media posts featured students, faculty, staff, and alumni with the hope that seeing the experiences of those in the department would facilitate not only awareness but a sense of the department’s culture and affinity and belonging.
The second goal of increasing access was facilitated largely through the redesign of the department web page. The GA co-created web page content in order to provide prospective students with clear, concise, and accessible resources and to demystify the application process. Captioned videos were created to supplement text and highlight program opportunities. Links were provided to campus resources with a particular focus on scholarships and financial aid, tuition, and program fees. Additionally, the department voted to remove the GRE application requirement because it was both a financial and linguistic barrier for students. Based on a review of department graduate student data, the GRE did not appear to be a strong predictor of program readiness or success.
Evaluating Success of Initiatives
While we cannot claim direct causality, there appear to be general indicators of success from the two-year GA position focused on increasing awareness and access to the SLP program. There was an increase in applications from 2019-2020 (181 applications) to 2020-2021 (226 applications). This increase maintained the diversity representation distribution, meaning that there was not simply an increase in white female applicants. There was a 49% increase in web clicks on prospective student information from the year 2020 to the year 2021. This increase may be due in part to the pandemic forcing reliance on digital or virtual resources. Anecdotally, advisors are seeing increases in student interest in the program via referrals from other departments. It is too early to determine if the outreach efforts with regional middle school and high school students from underrepresented communities had an impact. Given their educational status, these students will not be enrolling or applying to the program for several years. However, positive feedback was received from directors and student participants after all outreach engagements.
There were not only general program benefits to the inclusion work but also personal benefits to the GA and faculty administrator. Upon reflection the GA stated, “Engaging in this inclusion and equity work as a graduate student has easily been one of the most valuable components of my graduate education. Additionally, conducting interviews, collaborating with campus leaders, and giving presentations for student advisors, faculty members, and prospective students allowed me to grow in leadership, event planning, digital marketing, and project management skills. Most importantly, I have gained valuable insights about systemic barriers in both COMDIS and higher education as a whole. I will carry this experience with me and continue to create space for minority voices and work to create change.”
As a faculty administrator, reframing the focus of the GA position allowed me to engage in meaningful work to resolve feelings of inaction during a time of heightened social change due to the pandemic, and social and political unrest. It was a simple idea that allowed me as a member of the current majority group to take small and intentional action steps. From an administrative lens, utilizing a GA position to make progress towards inclusive recruitment initiatives was a strategic choice that aligned limited resources with strategic priorities and the mission of the department. I hope to continue to use this model to advance the inclusion work and expand the opportunity to undergraduate students by creating a volunteer undergraduate student intern position.
Creating partnerships with GAs and administrators provides a unique opportunity to promote department or program level inclusion initiatives, while also benefiting the individual’s professional development. Redefining the GA position did not alter the ability of the GA to develop highly relevant and transferable professional skills. By engaging with this work, students begin to develop an understanding of existing barriers, a passion for inclusion and equity work, and a desire to carry these experiences into their future careers. Similarly, administrators benefit from this GA model as they have the unique opportunity to increase awareness and access to programs while strategically utilizing limited resources.
Much thanks to Kerryn Foley, the dynamic and exceptional GA, who was critical for the execution of the initiatives. I would also like to thank director of pre-college programs Pam Warren, director of UW-W Rock TRIO programs Julie Janiak, Carole Salinas with UW-W Science Outreach, UW-W Reference & Instruction Librarian and CoEPS Liaison Ellen Latorraca, UW-W COEPS Recruitment and Retention Officer Lynn Perkins, assistant professor Dr. Lourdes Martinez-Nieto, and undergraduate Jamie Steinich, who were supporters of this work.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (2020). Profile of ASHA members and affiliates, year-end 2019. Retrieved from www.asha.org
Bellon-Harn, M., & Weinbaum, R. K. (2017). Speech, language, and hearing careers: Recruiting students from diverse populations. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 2(10), 4-13. https://doi.org/10.1044/persp2.SIG10.4
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Fuse, A. (2018). Needs of students seeking careers in communication sciences and disorders and barriers to their success. Journal of communication disorders, 72, 40-53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcomdis.2018.02.003
Ginsberg, Sarah M. (2018) Stories of Success: African American Speech-Language Pathologists’ Academic Resilience. Teaching and Learning in Communication Sciences & Disorders: 2(3). https://doi.org/10.30707/TLCSD2.3Ginsberg
Luedke, C., Collom, G., McCoy, D., Lee-Johnson, J., & Winkle-Wagner, R. (2019). Connecting identity with research: Socializing students of color towards seeing themselves asscholars. The Review of Higher Education, 42(4), 1527-1547. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2019.0074
Rodriguez, J. (2016). Our Clients Are Diverse: Why Aren’t We? Surprised by the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among students in her speech-language pathology programs, this graduate student offers some advice for her peers. The ASHA Leader, 21(5), 40-42. https://doi.org/10.1044/leader.SSAY.21052016.40