EMU speech-language pathology graduate student unleashes the power of the human voice

By Linda Hass | Published September 23, 2015

Sara Acton is dedicated to unleashing the power of the human voice. Whether she's singing in an a cappella chorus or extending the reach of culturally sensitive speech therapy, this Eastern Michigan University speech-language pathology student is passionate about communication.

"Language is incredibly important for self-expression, whether conveying hopes and fears or asking questions. I'm dedicated to helping others so their voices can be heard," says Acton, who also sings with Voices in Harmony, an Ypsilanti-based women's barbershop chorus. Acton's enthusiasm and devotion has not only earned the admiration of her EMU professors, it's garnered national acclaim.

"Sara's dedication, cultural sensitivity and her background in linguistics are assets to our program," says Ana Claudia Harten, associate professor in the speech-language pathology program. These qualities are among reasons the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) selected Acton for its 2015 Students Preparing for Academic Research Careers (SPARC) Award in August, adds Harten, Acton's primary mentor for the highly competitive award.

Acton receives SPARC award

Acton credits the College of Education with preparing her to successfully compete for the prestigious award. "Thanks to the guidance of Dr. Harten and others, I was able to put together a very strong application," says the first-year graduate student on track to earn a master's degree in speech-language pathology in 2017.

Her SPARC project is designed to help speech-language pathologists working in Cree communities (Native Americans in Canada) provide culturally appropriate services. She became interested in this project while doing fieldwork for her master's degree in linguistics, which she earned from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2012.

"In talking with Cree community members in Quebec, I learned children are under-served due to a need for more community-specific and language-specific information to guide speech-language pathologists working in the area," she says. "This is vital work for helping children in the community develop both Cree and English language skills."

One possible outcome of her SPARC project might be tailoring language programs to group rather than individual therapy, says Acton, a Canadian citizen who immigrated to the U.S. in 2013.

"My education at Eastern has helped me learn a lot about inclusion—in the classroom, in speech therapy and in the world. I now have a better understanding of what is lost when inclusion isn't the goal, and what I can do to work for inclusive spaces," says the 31-year-old.

EMU's international appeal

This is the fifth SPARC award an Eastern student has received since 2006. "This award speaks highly to the quality of our students, our program and the College of Education, and brings positive recognition to EMU," says Harten. Acton is one of only 11 students across the country to receive the annual award. Recipients receive up to $1,000 for teaching and research activities.

The fact that a Canadian citizen chose Eastern speaks volumes about the COE's drawing power. "Eastern's focus on education, the COE's reputation for excellence, and the financial support available were major draws," says Acton, who received EMU's Edna Fairbanks Graduate Research Award and the Dolores Soderquist Brehm Endowed Scholarship in Special Education.

Promising career prospects

Eastern's master's degree education program in speech-language pathology is accredited by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (CAA).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment prospects for SLP graduates are very good. The Bureau projects that employment will grow 19% from 2012-22, faster than the average for all occupations, spurred in part by an aging population and early identification and diagnosis of speech, language and swallowing disorders. The median annual wage for speech-language pathologists, who often find jobs in the health care and education industries, was $69,870 in 2012.[1]

"Sara's sound moral compass and her determination to develop practices that affirm the cultural sovereignty of her collaborators will undoubtedly have great impact in the development of best practices in the field," says Ashley Glassburn Falzetti, assistant professor, women's and gender studies. Falzetti has worked with Acton on several projects.

Learn more or donate

For more information, visit the Communication Sciences and Disorders program's site or contact Sarah Ginsberg, Professor and Program Director, at [email protected].

To make a difference in the lives of future SLP students, donate to the Communication Sciences and Disorders Program Fund, or contact Christa Reid, Director of Development for the College of Education at [email protected].

  1. Visit the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics site.