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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Natalie Hirons

August 31, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Natalie Hirons had been working as a toxicologist for several years when she decided to return to graduate school to become a speech-language pathologist. She liked her field’s focus on science and research, but she was looking for a profession that involved working directly with patients and clients on a daily basis. The Marietta, Georgia native was also looking for a career that offered long-term opportunities for growth and the flexibility to meet the needs of her growing family.

“The field of speech-language pathology offers just that, a balance between research and consideration of the individual aspects unique to each person,” Hirons says. “I love how therapists can make a significant impact on their patients’ and clients’ lives and be able to witness that meaningful change first-hand.”

The opportunity to work with individuals of different ages and backgrounds in a variety of settings and on a range of communication disorders also appealed to her. “Not many other careers can offer such meaningful and diverse work opportunities,” she says.

The field of speech-language pathology offers ... a balance between research and consideration of the individual aspects unique to each person.

-Natalie Hirons, Master of Communication Disorders student

With two young children to care for during her program, the Arnold School’s Master of Communication Disorders (recently renamed Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology – Distance Education) offered the perfect option for juggling her family and career aspirations. The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) offers a master of science program in two modalities (full-time, residential and part-time, distance education), training students to become speech-language pathologists. The program involves comprehensive coursework and critical clinical education, including a network of more than 600 external partner sites across the United States.

“I knew I’d be getting a high-quality degree, despite physically residing in a different state when choosing the distance-based option,” Hirons says. “The COMD program also provides rigorous coursework that span The Big Nine areas of speech-language pathology practice, and they pull in professors who specialize in specific practice areas. So, students get a solid academic background, gain knowledge about current research in those areas, and understand how evidence-based practice can be applied in a clinical or real-world setting for patients and clients.”

During her program, she developed interests in the cognitive aspects of language development in children as well as for older adults who have experienced a medical event or diagnosis. She’s also interested in how specific speech and language deficits impact literacy.

“The COMD professors on the whole have shaped me, and each and every one has contributed to both my wealth of knowledge and future practice as a clinician,” Hirons says. “All our professors placed a significant importance on making clinically sound decisions, using the best available research and practices for each client or patient. They have helped me cultivate a growth mindset and an identity as a lifelong learner, which will help me provide the best services for my future clients.”

Not many other careers can offer such meaningful and diverse work opportunities.

-Natalie Hirons, Master of Communication Disorders student

In particular, Hirons found mentors in clinical assistant professor Beth Barnes and clinical associate professor Caryn Melvin. “Dr. Barnes was remarkable in how well she communicated difficult concepts and brought a wealth of knowledge from across her diverse clinical practice as a speech-language pathologist,” Hirons says. “She made me understand the value in being able to communicate highly technical information to my future colleagues, patients and clients.”

Melvin also taught several of Hirons’ classes, including a course that was still in session when Hirons found herself taking final exams while on bedrest prior to the birth of their third son. “Dr. Melvin was an exemplary model of how to apply highly technical information to making decisions with a client,” Hirons says. “She has helped me understand that technical excellence is most meaningful when you understand a client’s background, their goals and priorities, and overall unique characteristics and considerations.”

After her December graduation, the Outstanding Master of Communication Disorders Student of the Year plans to work with pediatric populations in an educational setting. Long term, Hirons would like to start her own practice after gaining experience as a professional clinician and deepening her knowledge within specialty areas.

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