New program celebrates inaugural Speech-Language Pathology graduates, new practitioners

August 21, 2023
Young woman with long hair smiles while wearing a graduation robe and cap and holding a diploma.
Graduate Natalie Uhle is headed for a nine-month clinical fellowship in pediatric acute care in Atlanta. Photos by Anne Herford

It was a celebration worth waiting for.

For the last few months, the anticipation and excitement were building for MUSC student Natalie Uhle and her 40 classmates who make up the College of Health Professions’ inaugural Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) graduating class. The class celebrated this milestone at their graduation ceremony on Friday, Aug. 11 at Trident Technical College.

The graduation marks a high point for the dedicated students, faculty, staff and supporters on this journey. No one can be prouder than Christina Pelatti, Ph.D., associate professor and division director of the Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology program and the SLP faculty and staff. They were joined by special guests to recognize this exciting milestone.

“Each of us takes great pride in what we’ve accomplished. The students have worked so hard and have been so successful. This inaugural class is an exciting group because they have helped and supported us as we have continued to create and refine the program that it is today. Our graduates have a strong educational and clinical foundation that will help them change lives and empower others in the communities they serve,” said Pelatti, who came to MUSC in August of 2022 from Towson University in Maryland to lead the program.

Lisa Saladin, PT., Ph.D., executive vice president of Academic Affairs and Provost of MUSC, shared her celebratory thoughts with the students and guests. “Your dedication to enhancing the lives of others through speech and language is a remarkable endeavor, and the world needs your skills now more than ever. As you move forward, continue to carry the torch of knowledge, compassion and innovation that you have cultivated during your time at MUSC. May your futures be bright, your impact profound and your hearts forever enriched by the lives you touch. Congratulations."

People wearing graduation robes stand in front of a brick building. 
MUSC's College of Health Profession’s recognizes its class of 41 Speech-Language Pathology graduates on Aug. 11.

Prior to the presentation and conferring of degrees and class student awards, graduation speaker Elise Davis-McFarland, Ph.D., former College of Health Professions’ faculty, vice president for student affairs at Trident Technical College, and past president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, applauded students’ achievements and challenged them to be “change agents” for patients, their families and the profession.

“With the conferring of this degree today, each of you will be newly minted agents of change. But remember, your degree is a contract and with it comes your obligation to use your knowledge and talents to enrich other people’s lives by helping them meet their full communication potential. As you practice, you’re going to advocate for their rights, their voices, and you’re going to champion their cause in a world that often misunderstands their challenges because that’s what change agents do,” said Davis-McFarland.

“As you step into the world as a master of your craft, remember the immense responsibility that you carry. Our work has potential to transform lives, restore hope and provide individuals with tools that they need to communicate effectively.”

Just two years ago, the new SLP program launched in MUSC’s College of Health Professions as a candidate program for accreditation with the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology. Out of hundreds of applicants, 41 students were admitted to this inaugural class. 

SLP students complete courses and clinical training experiences using a lock-step progression for the first four semesters of the two-year, six semester program. This means that students’ clinical experiences each semester mirror what they are learning in the classroom.

During the final two semesters, students complete their coursework online, and their final clinical rotation and externship can occur anywhere in the country. In addition to the program’s unique curriculum, students receive interprofessional training through educational and clinical opportunities working with interdisciplinary students in various clinics or community support opportunities. Students also complete specialized trainings, including the MBSImp, which sets them apart from other SLP students across the country. MBSImp stands for modified barium swallow impairment profile.

“Our focus will always be on helping our students find success, meeting student needs and ensuring they receive high-quality training as they enter the profession. Students know that we’re committed to helping them achieve the utmost success,” Pelatti said. 

In addition to students’ education, Pelatti is committed to the success of the program’s faculty and staff. “Our faculty and staff are truly amazing. They’re so smart, dedicated and passionate, innovative, welcoming and open-minded.”

Eight people wearing faculty robes pose in front of a sign that says MUSC College of Health Professions. 
Speech-Language Pathology faculty gather with graduation guests Trident Technical College's Dr. Elise Davis-MacFarland, fourth from left, and MUSC Provost Dr. Lisa Saladin, center, fifth from left.

Forging a path to success

Uhle's journey began right after graduating with her early childhood education degree from Clemson University. The Aiken native knew she wanted to obtain a graduate degree outside of education to give her more career options. She was able to shadow a speech-language pathologist and loved it. “I definitely could see myself working in a career in speech pathology,” said the 24-year old.

Ready to apply to programs, Uhle learned about MUSC’s new SLP program thanks to a friend. She discovered that MUSC emphasized the medical aspects of speech-language pathology with ample hands-on clinical training experiences, working with practitioners in various health care and educational settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes and other education-related practices.

Before she began her journey to become a speech-language pathologist, aside from working traditionally in schools, Uhle was unaware she could specialize in medical SLP. She knew of her cousins' successes as graduates of MUSC and was already enamored with the Charleston area. “I knew getting into this program would be my dream,” Uhle said.

For Uhle’s clinical experiences, she completed her rotations working with acute care patients, helped premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit and assisted children diagnosed with pediatric dysphasia, speech-language issues and other disorders at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. She also worked with adult patients at the MUSC Health Head and Neck Cancer Clinic, learning how cancer and other conditions affect patients’ eating, swallowing and voice.

“I learned quickly how to value the experiences and connections associated with my clinical placements in this program and within the profession. I was unaware how MUSC’s reputation in the medical community carried and how the program offered students like me limitless clinical and educational learning opportunities,” said Uhle.

Pelatti credits the program’s director of Clinical Education, Lori-Ann Ferraro, Ph.D., with the success of the clinical experiences. As a new program, it’s a challenge to recruit, train and support clinical supervisors. Also, everyone is grateful for the clinical educators for their time and commitment in teaching and providing supervised clinical experiences for students and supporting the new program. 

“Employers are recognizing the uniqueness of our students’ preparation,” said Pelatti. “MUSC’s unique educational approach, diverse clinical and educational experiences and other aspects of our program help distinguish our students as they gain experiences or secure clinical fellowships and jobs. Our students have been successful on the national exam and have secured jobs. That’s so exciting.”

For Uhle, her dream continues. In September, she will begin a nine-month clinical fellowship working in pediatric acute care at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta-Egleston Hospital (CHOA). Earlier in the program, she connected with Ferraro to help coordinate a shadowing opportunity with a former student of Ferarro’s who is now a practicing SLP at CHOA.

Uhle’s clinical experience at CHOA helped confirm her interest in a career in medical speech-language pathology helping children. “I can’t say enough about my experience with the speech-language pathology program at MUSC. I’d rate my experience 10 out of 10 and would highly recommend this program to others,” she said.

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