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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Sharon Gray

November 1, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Sharon Gray is committed to her rural town in Delta County, Colorado. She’s lived most of her life in the Western Slope agricultural community – only leaving for four years to earn dual bachelor’s degrees in elementary and special education at Arizona State University.

During the first five years of her career, Gray worked with middle school students who have medically fragile and significant support needs associated with intellectual disabilities and conditions such as Down Syndrome, hearing impairment with cochlear implants, autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy.  With her classroom designed as a life skills program, Gray designed a modified curriculum aligned with dynamic learning maps for students requiring intensive care and instruction beyond the general education curriculum. She worked closely with other specialists, like the school speech-language pathologist, to help students develop functional life skills (e.g., homemaking, cooking, budgeting, work experiences, community outings).

“Living in a small, rural community there are a lot of areas that are difficult to fill so that members of the community can receive adequate services,” Gray says. “Especially working with students and adults with significant disabilities in our rural community, there is a great need for speech and language pathologists.”

Her community was particularly impacted when two speech-language pathologists retired within a few years of each other. They had served both the local rehabilitation clinic and local schools, leaving a gap that the town couldn’t manage to fill through telehealth and traveling clinicians. Fortunately, the retired therapists continued supporting the community, which turned its focus to its long-term residents for a solution.

“I saw the gap of care that was left once our wonderful speech-language pathologists retired, and as good mentors, they knew to invest their time in people who were already rooted in our community,” Gray says. “Now, as I am gaining my practicum experiences, they continue to aid me and ensure I feel supported completing a distance program while living in our rural county.”

Those practicum experiences and distance courses are a part of the Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology – Distance Education program – one of two paths offered by the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD) to become a speech-language pathologist. By 2019, Gray was working as a long-term care case manager helping older adults and individuals with disabilities receive in-home care such as personal care and skilled services (e.g., home health) – both areas she says are in high demand and essential to staying active in her under-resourced community. The distance education program enabled her to continue this work.

“Distance education through UofSC has provided enriched learning that we access through virtual platforms, but we have still been able to build strong relationships with our cohort and have been provided opportunities to work with amazing instructors,” Gray says. “It has been such a wonderful experience to be able to work full time while completing my degree, and then also have opportunities for in-person clinical practicum experiences both in South Carolina and close to home.”

She has also gotten to know the COMD faculty, finding mentors in Caryn Melvin, Elizabeth Barnes and Dirk den Ouden. “These instructors have taught me that although we work very hard in our coursework and with our studies, it is important that we carry over our learning into real-world practice, and they are active examples of how our learning is applied with our clients,” says Gray, who also felt very connected to her classmates. “The friendships I made from that first day at in-person orientation have continued to this day as we study together, work on projects, encourage each other, and some of us even lived together during our SC practicums.”

After her 2022 graduation, Gray will complete an internship at Craig Hospital, which specializes in rehabilitation after traumatic brain injury. She will then return to her rural town to serve as a speech-language pathologist – bringing her journey full circle to address the community needs that inspired her to pursue a career in the COMD field.

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