Why I love working in a University

I have been meaning to write this blog post for ages, but the recent #loveHE campaign by the Times Higher has inspired me to finally write this.

There are many reasons why I love working in a University, but this was crystallised recently when my three year old daughter, Sylvia, developed a stammer.

Anyone who has been in even the smallest amount of contact with a toddler will know that they all speak with many idiosyncrasies at various times (Sylvia loved to say “applepine” and “bear Pooh”) so when Sylvia first seemed to speak with some hesitation and repetition we just put it down to her speech development.  And, indeed, from the age of about eighteen months or so her stammer seemed to just come and go.  However, just before Christmas last year it became worse. A lot worse.  It is one of the most heart-breaking things to see your child struggling with something and feel seemingly powerless to help.  Over two or three days, Sylvia changed from a generally chatty and articulate little girl, to a child that could barely say one sentence without hesitation. She became so distressed that she started to shout to get the words out or tense up her body, jerking it each time she said a word.  Even more concerning, she would start a sentence and then halfway through she would stop and use a different word when she knew she could  not pronounce the next word.  One night she turned to her Dad and said “Daddy, can you help me talk?”  We started to think that perhaps this was not the usual linguistic developmental “blip” and that perhaps she needed some help.

So, working in a University that has a Speech and Language Department, I dropped a colleague an email asking if we could go for a coffee to talk about this, thinking that she would probably just tell me not to worry and that Sylvia was too young for this to be anything serious.  Instead, my colleague replied immediately and said we could bring Sylvia along to a clinic in two days time where they would observe her and tell us definitively whether Sylvia needed speech therapy.  That was pretty impressive in terms of timing, so we agreed.

Of course, by the time we reached the clinic Sylvia’s stammer had completely disappeared and she was speaking without hesitation again. Typical! However, the wonderful staff at the Compass Centre, said that was completely normal and made us feel at our ease.  The Compass Centre is amazing, tucked away in the corner of one of our Schools, I must have passed it many times and had no idea that it is there.  It consists of a nursery room which Sylvia immediately felt at ease in and rushed off to investigate the dolls; an observation room and an interview room.  We were both feeling quite apprehensive about our first session but we needn’t have worried.  We had the luxury of being able to observe Sylvia playing with one of the students and listen to her interactions whilst she was filmed. I could have watched her playing all day.   We were then interviewed by another student and tutor to find out more about our history.  They confirmed that Sylvia did indeed have a stammer and recommended a programme called the Lidcombe Program that consists mainly of home practice and regular clinic visits.  All the “therapy” is performed by us and Sylvia only knows that she has “smooth talking” practice and visits to Mummy’s work.  And the cause? Well, no one really knows, but probably nicely shared between a genetic disposition and the ability of one of us to talk very quickly, oh, and the fact that Sylvia is very articulate (always good to get back-handed compliments about your child!)

We have now been visiting the Centre since January and Sylvia is doing really well. She loves coming into Mummy’s work as she loves playing with the student “Nora” (as Sylvia calls her) and we get an opportunity to watch her playing every week, as well as talk about how we have found the practice and Sylvia’s language over the past week. And the staff and students at the Compass Centre are wonderfully supportive and caring.  Their enthusiasm for their work is infectious.

This experience really made me grateful for Universities and the opportunities they offer.  There is a clear indication between research, teaching and practice.  All the treatment Sylvia has is free and we are providing a case study as well as a learning experience for the students.  Having the clinic on the doorstep has meant that I have been able to combine taking Sylvia to the clinic with work more easily.  And, bringing a child into a University setting is always good fun (except that one week when fuelled on chocolate she decided to scream her way out of the building)!  I feel privileged to be part of an environment which fosters these opportunities and makes a difference to so many people.  Whatever challenges Universities will undoubtedly face over the next few years the role that they play in applying research and learning to practice should not be lost.

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