University of Southern California: A New Generation of Speech-Language Pathologists is Being Trained at USC

The Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP) program, housed in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, is entering the second semester of its first year, having opened in Fall 2021. The program leverages the Keck School of Medicine’s resources as a premiere medical school in the nation’s second largest city to train a new generation of speech-language pathologists. The MS-SLP program consists of 69 units, which are taught over two years/six semesters. Additionally, students are required to acquire 400 clinical hours, take comprehensive examinations, and present a capstone project. Although it is only in its first year, USC’s setting and offerings provide an extraordinary opportunity to build a top-ranked speech-language pathology program.

“Many people from within the university and in the community have asked why USC did not have a speech-language pathology program,” said Dr. Barbara Moore, Program Director. “Community members, other university programs, students at UPC and from outside the university are all excited that the program now exists. It is a natural within the expansive health care and education program at this wonderful university.”

Speech-language pathology is a multi-faceted career serving individuals with communication and swallowing disorders from diverse populations in diverse settings, across the lifespan. Speech-language pathologists work in both healthcare and educational settings, focusing on the “Big 9” disabilities, which include speech-sound production, fluency, receptive and expressive language and literacy disorders, cognitive aspects of communication, voice and resonance, swallowing and feeding, hearing, social aspects of communication, and augmentative and alternative communication.

Despite the program beginning in the middle of a pandemic, it has been immediately popular for students who want to make a real difference in health care and education, because the field of speech-language pathology offers an exciting career path with flexible options for work settings and specializations.

“Speech-language pathology is ranked as one of the top career choices in nearly every report that examines strong future careers. There is a wide expanse of choices in terms of places to work, and there is great career satisfaction and portability. Additionally, there is a serious shortage of speech-language pathologists in both health care and education, so great jobs are out there for our graduates.” states Dr. Moore.

John Oghalai, MD, Chair of the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, had long seen the need for such a program due to his pediatric work.

“I wanted to build this program here at USC because I thought we had an exceptional medical campus with tremendous opportunities for new trainees, because we had such talented speech-language pathologists, audiologists, physicians, and researchers who had tremendous expertise in this field, and because the undergraduate campus had so many students that would be interested in a career as a speech-language pathologist,” said Dr. Oghalai.

Dr. Oghalai recruited Barbara Moore, EdD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL, a USC graduate, speech-language pathologist, and special education administrator for more than 30 years, to design the program. It took more than two years of preparation to get the appropriate approvals, and the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic further complicated the process. Nevertheless, program preparations moved forward. The first class was recruited and ready to start in the Fall 2021. Dr. Moore reports that students and faculty are happy to be in face-to-face instruction, after spending the past couple of years in online learning. Additionally, students are in clinical placements in the community, working directly with children in public schools and during their first semester.

“The students have been connected and energized since first meeting at our Welcome Picnic in July,” Dr. Moore shared. “They are an amazing group of inspired individuals who not only have taken on a rigorous course of study, but who embrace their opportunity as the Inaugural Cohort to shape our program. They have been called ‘pioneers’ by Dr. Louis Goldstein of the Linguistics Department, and indeed they are!”

Communication is a critical component in speech-language pathology, and that principle extends to a healthcare team effectively communicating about the best way to care for a patient in need. One of the core tenets of the program’s mission statement is to teach students to engage in interprofessional and collaborative practice. In addition to experiencing interprofessional teams in their clinical placements, students in the MS-SLP program will join in an ongoing Interprofessional Education Day on Valentine’s Day, which brings together professional programs throughout USC and the Keck School of Medicine. This event has been ongoing for several years to create engagement between a variety of professional programs, but this will be the first year for speech-language pathology and a few other programs to participate. The goal of the event is to create an environment where students are learning about each other’s profession while working through a case study. This is a great opportunity for everyone to simulate working as a team, and to more easily traverse between specialty areas while successfully treating the whole patient and family.

Learning to work across disciplines not only helps create better speech-language pathologists; the addition of speech-language pathology students in these exercises creates new ways of thinking for specialists in other fields. Dr. Moore is excited about the opportunity for the graduate students in speech-language pathology to be part of this experience, as it is a two-way process of learning across all of the participating programs.

“Whether in education or in health care settings, speech-language pathologists are an integral part of interprofessional teams, because communication is central to who we are as human beings. All professionals need to know how speech-language pathologists are involved in a variety of communication and swallowing disorders, in order to ensure that these individuals receive appropriate assessment and treatment,” Dr. Moore said. “When professionals work together, we ensure the best possible outcomes for those in our care.”

The program’s inclusion as part of the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery provides even more opportunity for interdisciplinary expertise and teaching. In addition to the new full-time faculty in the program (Barbara Moore, EdD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL, Program Director; Jennifer Shubin, PhD, CCC-SLP, Clinical Education Director, and Robin Alvares, PhD CCC-SLP, Academic Faculty), other clinical and research faculty from within the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery teach courses in the program, highlighting the expertise within the department. These courses include Voice and Resonance Disorders co-taught by Michael Johns, III, MD and Lauren Timmons Sund, MS, CCC-SLP; Dysphagia taught by Brenda Capobres Villegas, EdD, CCC-SLP; and Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders and audiology classes taught by Karen Johnson, PhD, CCC-A, and Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology taught by Karolina Charaziak, PhD and James Dewey, PhD. Other speech-language pathologists and audiologists in the department have also been involved in student admissions and providing clinical education opportunities. Everyone has helped with the development of the program, according to Dr. Moore.

The MS-SLP program reflects and incorporates many of the amazing talents and skills of those who work in the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. In addition to clinical and research faculty teaching in the program, as well as providing clinical settings in which students can learn, several researchers in the department and other departments opened their research labs to the graduate students who visited to learn about research in action and where evidence-based practice is developed. Research is a fundamental aspect of any speech-language pathology program, and the visits to labs across the university allowed the students to learn more about the interface of speech-language pathology with other disciplines such as linguistics, psychology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, engineering and of course, otolaryngology. The entire cohort was invited to visit the SPAN Lab in November, which was a highlight of the first semester. The program looks forward to connecting with other researchers for next year’s visits.

“This program takes advantage of the talented clinical and research faculty in the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. Teaching the next generation of clinicians and scientists is what we are all about, and this program has given us one more way to make this contribution,” said Dr. Oghalai.

The Inaugural Cohort has busy spring and summer semesters planned, including the beginning of clinical placements in health care settings in the summer and more academic classes. Going into its second year, the Masters of Science in Speech-Language Pathology program has ambitious plans to continue its growth, starting with adding Cohort II.

“The Inaugural Cohort of students speak often about being involved in greeting and onboarding Cohort II, including welcoming them at the Boot Camp orientation in August,” said Dr. Moore. “Some of our current students have already joined in our Information Sessions for next year’s applicants, and I find the prospective students would much rather ask them questions than me!”

“Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, has a huge need for speech-language pathologists,” said Dr. Oghalai. “They are critical components of every school and hospital. Qualified speech-language pathologists are in high demand. We are excited that the USC program can produce high-caliber graduates and that they will go on to serve the people in our community.”

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