Megan Andersen didn’t speak until she was 5 years old. Her family, team of doctors and a host of other professionals aren’t quite sure why — maybe something about poor muscle tone, dexterity and fine and gross motor development, as she puts it.
“I have memories of not speaking,” Andersen said. “I remember it clearly – and I remember being very frustrated because I was constantly thinking all the time. I remember the anger.
Andersen, now a third-year student at the University of Montana, said it wasn’t until her little brother started talking that Andersen decided she was done being nonverbal.
“Once he started talking, I was like ‘no way is my little brother talking before me,'” she said. “So I started talking. Guess I had to find a brother to get me to talk.
It was then that she transformed a good sense of sibling rivalry and years of silence into an uncompromising focus that lifted her academically, professionally, and personally.
Andersen, of Kalispell, was an academic star at Glacier High School. Her parents, both teachers, encouraged her to look for opportunities and challenge herself. This included a rigorous outdoor education with plenty of time outdoors exploring northwest Montana, skiing at Whitefish, and hiking throughout Glacier National Park.
She took advantage of the dual enrollment courses offered by Flathead Valley Community College and enrolled at UM as a sophomore with nearly 40 college credits already earned. When she arrived on campus, there was no doubt what she wanted to study.
“Speech therapy,” Andersen said. “I came here especially for this program. I am interested in pediatric speech therapy and all the therapy modes available to children to help them become their best selves.
Andersen is a communication sciences and disorders major with plans to attend graduate school for clinical training in speech development. UM’s CSD major offers students the privilege of working with people with developmental disabilities, as well as lifelong disabilities related to speech, language, and hearing. Graduates often seek graduate degrees in speech-language pathology and audiology in addition to medical and educational fields.
“What I love is that the program is focused on the foundation of all types of communication – speech, auditory, physical, social and behavioral – it’s all connected,” she said.
UM’s School of Speech, Language, Hearing, and Occupational Sciences, housed in the College of Health, offers several certificate programs, post-baccalaureate pathways, an accredited master’s program in speech-language pathology for clinicians and a doctoral program for researchers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that employment for speech-language pathologists is expected to increase 29% over the next 10 years, with approximately 15,200 openings expected each year over the next decade.
Speech and hearing science professor Amy Glaspey teaches an undergraduate class on phonetics, one of Andersen’s favorite classes so far. Glaspey recalls Andersen having “a constant curiosity and constant interest and presence”.
Glaspey’s class examines phonological development using a sound symbol system that provides a way to assess how a person speaks, their sound production, and where they might have difficulty with pronunciation.
Glaspey said it’s not uncommon for students who have had a personal connection or experience with communication difficulties, like Andersen, to later gravitate to the field as adults. She said that the CSD major is broad by design, as it offers many opportunities in different fields and areas of interest.
“The undergraduate communication sciences and disorders major is a stepping stone to so many amazing fields,” Glaspey said. “Many students choose to pursue specialized graduate studies, and many seek opportunities in education, health, psychology, or as speech pathology or audiology assistants. The scope of work and opportunities is vast.
What sets UM apart, Glaspey said, is the level of faculty expertise, small class sizes, and the opportunity for undergraduates to seek and receive research experience. CSD seniors can complete a research-based capstone and they have the opportunity to apply for a mentorship experience by a faculty member in their respective research area.
At UM, Andersen finds other ways to connect the dots when it comes to the various ways people communicate and find trust. An avid skier, Andersen volunteers with the Whitefish-based DREAM Adaptive Recreation program. The program provides responsive and inclusive recreational opportunities throughout the year. Andersen volunteers throughout the winter, helping children and young adults learn to use their bodies in an adaptive and inclusive environment to recreate themselves safely.
“There is an opportunity in these spaces to help people who struggle to communicate, to find confidence,” she said. “I find a lot of similarities in my communication lessons when working with people with disabilities outdoors. And I really like that, because it’s like watching someone overcome a perceived limit.
In addition to the great outdoors and the mountains, faith has also been a founding element of Andersen’s journey. She is active with UM’s Young Life, an organization of Christian students who share ideas about spirituality and spend time together.
“There’s a really cool student community in Young Life,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily expect to find that here, but I found a great group of friends, and UM feels like a second home now.”
As for what the future might hold, Andersen said she’s focused on the moment.
“I know I want to work with kids and help kids like me who are struggling,” she said. “Kids who have had a unique start when it comes to language, but are also smart and hardworking. It’s a super interesting area with a huge impact on life.