MUW retiring speech-language pathology professor reflects on job that was 'never boring'

May 16, 2018 10:49:39 AM

Isabelle Altman - [email protected]


Michelle Harmon has been working as a speech pathologist for 35 years and says she has never once been bored. 


The professor and alumna of Mississippi University for Women hadn't even heard of the field she would spend her life teaching as a transfer sophomore in the late 1960s. A former Miss New Hampshire thanks to her interpretive dance, Harmon went to the communications building on campus with the idea of studying speech and drama. There, faculty took her to the speech pathology labs and let her observe a speech pathologist working with a client. 


"I said, 'Oh my goodness. ... I would love to do that,'" Harmon said. "Then when I got into the study of it, it was so diverse. How could you ever be bored with such a diverse profession?" 


Harmon spent most of the next four decades in the speech pathology department, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student and finally, for the last 35 years, as a clinician and professor.  


But this week, Harmon is retiring. 


"I'm going to miss the faculty," she said. "I'm going to miss that close-knit relationship that I've had with the faculty. I'm going to miss teaching students. ... I'm going to miss working with the people themselves that have the disorders and helping them and really seeing that I've made a difference in someone's life." 




Diversity of the field 


Speech-language pathology deals with different types of communication disorders. 


"Speech-language pathologists actually work to prevent, to screen, to diagnose, to treat speech language disorders, disorders of social communication, disorders of cognitive communication, swallowing disorders and that's across the age span," Harmon said. "... From infants all the way to the elderly." 


Those in speech-language pathology fields aid people with everything from stuttering to dyslexia and even reducing accents, Harmon said. And though when Harmon first got her degree in the early 1970s, speech pathologists mostly worked in public schools and the occasional hospital, the field has expanded enough for pathologists to open their own private practices or find jobs in nursing homes, private schools and most medical agencies. 


At MUW, Harmon's department is small. With undergraduate classes of about 50 and graduate classes at closer to 15, Harmon described the department as "close-knit" and said the students and faculty all regularly work with clients. Harmon herself has taught pre-school, working with children with speech disorders, diseases and disabilities -- from deafness to cerebral palsy. 


Each client's disorders could be caused by a variety of issues, Harmon said, from medical to neurological, which means each client's treatment has to be individualized. 


"They are different, and they have different needs, and you've got to tap into that," Harmon said. "You've got to find the need that person specifically has. What is their biggest complaint and knowing when to serve them." 


Allie Williams, an audiologist in Las Cruces, New Mexico, studied speech and hearing sciences under Harmon from 2011-13 and remembers her classes "vividly." 


"In speech and hearing sciences, my love for audiology started to take shape," Williams said. "... I was fascinated by the principles of hearing. The class was primarily, of course, intended for knowledge of speech pathology, but I think this class opened the door of audiology for me. Intro to audiology cemented it." 


Williams added Harmon was "tough but fair" as a professor. 


"She was also one of the most genuine instructors I ever had," Williams said. 


Harmon said she worked her clients, including the children, as hard as she worked her students to make sure they were able to communicate. 


"That is what makes us essentially human, is the ability to communicate," Harmon said. "And I worked the children almost as hard as I worked the students. Because the ability to communicate is everything, and without it, well, you're severely limited." 




Advancements in the field 


Since Harmon became certified -- and even in the last few years -- the field of speech pathology has exploded, she said. In 2014, there were 127,000 certified speech-language pathologists in the country. Now there are more than 168,000. And the field is expected to grow more in the coming years, Harmon said. 


Research and technology have altered the field as well, Harmon said, particularly with the rise in communication technology. 


One of her first clients after she graduated with her master's degree was a young girl who couldn't speak at all.  


"At the time, all we knew to do was work on one sound at a time," Harmon said. "... I was working on the final 'p' sound forever, because ... that's one of the earliest occurring sound. 


"I must have worked with that child for two years doing the final 'p' sound," she continued, "because she was so impaired. Now I would never do that. We have so much more information. And I would work with that child in a totally different way. ... There's a ton of approaches you can use." 


The child may have needed a technological device to help her speak -- something else that wasn't around for speech- language pathologists when Harmon started. 


MUW's program has grown too, from only a handful of students each year with limited prospects to professionals who now have a wide range of options.  


"The one thing that hasn't changed over the years has been the wonderful colleagues that I've had an opportunity to work with," Harmon said. "Some of us fit together to a very long time and they're just like family to me. ... It's really been my honor and my privilege to work with them at the W." 


Harmon said she will remain in Columbus and still visit MUW. She plans to attend graduation next year to see her last class graduate. 


"My plan is -- you're going to laugh -- 30 years of housework," Harmon said laughing, "that I've put off because I was here -- loving the faculty, loving the students, loving my job."