Communication Disorders alumnae bring a little bit of UMass to the University of Pittsburgh

October 14, 2014

Front (left-right): Catherine Palmer '84; Adrianna Doyle '13; Elaine Mormer '79, '81; Katie Stone '14.  Back row (left-right): (arm on panther) Arielle Swartz '12; Deborah Morgan '12

For many undergraduates, earning a bachelor’s degree in Communication Disorders is the first stage of a longer journey toward becoming a licensed speech-language pathologist or audiologist. The next step typically involves the highly competitive process of applying to graduate school, a numbers game in which many apply but only a select few are admitted. Considering the odds, it’s highly unusual to find so many alumnae in one school as there are UMass Amherst graduates at the University of Pittsburgh, a top 10 program in both audiology and speech-language pathology according to the most recent U.S. News &World Report rankings. UMass Amherst alumnae currently working or enrolled at the university include faculty members Dr. Elaine Mormer, ’79, MA’81, and Dr. Catherine Palmer, ’84, and students Arielle Swartz, ’12, Deborah Morgan, ’12, Adrianna Doyle, ’13, and Katie Stone, ’14.

Part of that success story begins with a department doing a fantastic job preparing its undergraduates for graduate school, say Mormer and Palmer. “We are thrilled to have UMass students,” notes Palmer, an associate professor who serves as Director for both the AuD program and the Center for Audiology and Hearing Aids at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “I have certainly been impressed with them. One thing that jumps out at me is they have all had terrific attitudes – ready to learn, ready to take advantage of new opportunities.”

Elaine Mormer

“I think they come from an undergrad program with faculty who encourage them to think critically and take advantage of opportunities,” adds Elaine Mormer, the Audiology Clinical Education Coordinator and an assistant professor in the Audiology graduate program.

One of those students is Arielle Swartz, a 2012 UMass graduate now in her third year of the AuD program at Pitt. “I felt very confident coming into grad school thanks to my time at UMass. I was a teaching assistant for three classes – Phonetics, Intro to Audiology, and Hearing Science – which helped me gain access to professors who would otherwise not know me. It was Dr. Helfer’s Intro to Audiology course in particular which inspired me to go into audiology. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would come home to my roommates and talk about the awesome things I learned about the ear.”

Mormer recalls a similar experience with faculty a generation before. “My professors at UMass were great role models, and they taught me to think about evidence-based approaches to clinical thinking, before that particular term was used. I especially enjoyed my Introduction to Audiology class, which was taught by Dr. Roy Gengel. I used to watch him teach and imagine how cool it would be if I could someday be the person teaching that same class. Now I do teach that class every fall semester, and I can only hope that my students enjoy it as much as I did at UMass.”

Catherine Palmer

“This was a group of enthusiastic, excellent, kind individuals,” remembers Palmer. “I model quite a bit of my behavior after them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to be a professor. The UMass faculty had a good balance of being very demanding but also caring about you as an individual. I try to be that same kind of professor at Pitt. They created a ‘small school’ atmosphere in a very large school and I hope that we have replicated that.”

Katie Stone, a 2014 alumna now in her first year of the Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) program at Pitt, speaks similarly of the SLP faculty at UMass. “Drs. Choe and Rost were always there to help me and answer any questions I had. The professors were always dedicated to helping us learn and succeed.”

Fellow SLP graduate student Deborah Morgan, ’12, suggests that students get to know their faculty, and not just for the amazing recommendation letters they will write. “It is good to have someone to fall back on for any questions, concerns, or advice you may need even 10 years after graduation.”

She also attributes her successful transition to graduate school to a piece of advice she received as a freshman. “One of the most important things I was told was to get involved. Join clubs, organizations, get a job, and stay busy. Thanks to that advice, I was part of multiple organizations and had various jobs all four years. I don't think I would be where I am now if I hadn't acquired the time management skills I needed throughout my time at UMass.”

This is a sentiment echoed by all the young alumnae. “One of my most treasured experiences is playing on the Women’s Club Volleyball team,” says SLP graduate student Adrianna Doyle, ’13. “And my fondest memories about the Communication Disorders department involve the activities that it allowed me to participate in, such as The Pal Project and The Walk and Roll for Aphasia. These experiences acted as learning opportunities, as well as provided me with the chance to interact with and help the Amherst community.”

Catherine Palmer remembers fondly her time as an undergraduate at UMass in the 1980s. “Some of my best memories include being a synchronized swimmer and living in Butterfield while my brother was in charge of the independent dining hall in that dorm. I also had a wonderful experience studying at Trinity College, Oxford, England, and through the education department, I did my student teaching on a Pueblo Reservation in Taos, New Mexico which was really a life-changing experience.”

She also recommends that current undergraduates take advantage of all that UMass has to offer. “Get out of your comfort zone and become a well-educated individual who will not only be an outstanding audiologist or speech-language pathologist but who also will be interesting at cocktail parties!”

Arielle Swartz

Swartz agrees, recommending an active life outside the classroom. “Do as much observation as possible! Explore outside the in-house clinic. Get exposed to dysphagia clinics, acute care hospitals, cochlear implants, the Clarke school in Northampton; do everything you can possibly do to enhance your experience and confirm that this is what you want to do! If you're interested in the Deaf population, find an ASL class in the 5-College system. Talk to family members about experiences they have had, such as strokes, hearing loss, and speech therapy. Hearing about experiences will make you want to either emulate or change the way they view SLPs and AuDs.”

“Work hard, and take advantage of as many opportunities as you can within the field,” says Doyle. “Try working with different populations. You may find that you really enjoy something that you never would have expected! Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology are amazing fields to be a part of. Learn as much as you can and you'll find that the rewards of helping others are well worth the effort. Also, help each other out. School can get competitive, but at the end of the day, these people are your peers and future colleagues.”

And, as it turns out, they might even end up being your graduate school classmates. The six alumnae have found a little bit of home away from home in the bond they share as UMass Amherst alumnae. Says Swartz, “I wear my UMass Amherst sweatshirts and t-shirts wherever I can. There is an indescribable pride that you have wearing UMass apparel. I've had a handful of times where I will randomly see someone representing UMass and I will always go up to them and ask them if they went there. It’s such a great feeling to find alums where you least expect to.”

When asked what she misses most about UMass Amherst, Morgan says, “The people, without a doubt. The most interesting conversations I had at UMass involved folks who I had nothing in common with at first sight. We learned to have an open mind and learn from each other and I take that with me everywhere.”

Doyle talks about the sense of community she found on campus. “Sports and school events were always so much fun. I miss looking around and seeing a sea of maroon!”

“Especially at hockey games!” adds Swartz. “People at Pitt don't know how lively and awesome college hockey can be. I miss lining up at the Mullins Center hours before games and piling in to fill up the student half of the arena with 5,000 of my closest friends. And the Dining Commons! They were such a great way to socialize and I was lucky to cross paths with some awesome people while eating the best campus food in the country.”

“I miss the campus and Amherst,” says Doyle. “Going to an urban school has given me a new appreciation for the beauty of western Massachusetts.”

Three decades removed from UMass Amherst, Mormer agrees with her younger alumna. “I’ve never stopped missing the feeling of New England.”

They all feel fortunate to have found each other on a campus far away from the Pioneer Valley, and to have brought a little bit of UMass with them to their new homes.

“Finding Catherine Palmer at the University of Pittsburgh and working with her for the past two decades has certainly felt like a piece of UMass is here with me,” concludes Mormer. “We’ve also managed to recruit a steady stream of UMass undergraduates here for graduate school, so I like to think we continually bring UMass to Pittsburgh.”