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New NHSI Program Seeks to Popularize Careers in Neuroscience and Communication

Great audiologists and speech-language pathologists are created young.

The School of Communication’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders launched this summer its first collaboration with the National High School Institute (NHSI), which brought seven Chicago-area high schoolers to campus for a free, weeklong deep dive into Neuroscience and Communication.

“This was our attempt to steer these students toward speech-language and hearing sciences so that at least they’re aware of these great fields,” says Sumit Dhar, professor and CSD department chair. And, he adds, they hope to bring more diversity to what has been a traditionally white, female-dominated industry. “Often, you model your career choice on someone you see; if you don’t see anyone that looks like you, you might think you can’t do this work.”

The seven students—five boys, two girls, and nearly all people of color—hailed from Mather, Lake View, and Evanston Township high schools. They spent a late-July week living like a Northwestern student—bunking in the residence halls, eating in the cafeterias, and steeping themselves in a challenging area of study. Each day started with a lecture and was followed with lab work, a lunch with current School of Communication undergraduate or graduate students, more lectures, clinical work or case studies, faculty fireside chats, and a bit of fun time before lights out.

The Cherubs, as NHSI participants are known, were able to take a hands-on approach to conducting a swallowing assessment, watch an EEG language study take place, learn about the latest technological advancements, and observe how conditions affecting speech, hearing, and language are diagnosed. They heard from faculty on what being a working clinician entails, how careers in research can pan out, and why exposing more people from more backgrounds is so critical to these fields’ success.

The week ended with each Cherub delivering a brief presentation on a topic from the week that intrigued them. These included explanations of the structure of the ear, the need for bilingual speech-language pathologists, and what’s at stake for health outcomes when patients don’t see medical professionals that share their race or ethnicity.

“We hope to build ambassadors through this experience,” says Adam Joyce, the School of Communication’s associate dean of planning and engagement, who oversees NHSI. “They go back to their schools and tell their friends about what they’ve discovered is possible, and they see all the opportunities they have to create relationships and craft a possible career in these exploding fields.”

This was NHSI’s first foray into neuroscience curriculum. Since 1931, Northwestern each summer has welcomed high school students from around the world to the Evanston campus to take part in immersive theatre, debate, and film programming. Recently NHSI added playwriting opportunities for students in the summer program as well as those in Chicago-area high schools during the academic year, with plans for further expansion. Organizers hope to offer the Neuroscience and Communication option again next year.

During the final presentations, several students noted that they were now considering careers in audiology or speech-language pathology, and others expressed a new appreciation for the work done by these professionals.

“You should absolutely take this,” says Muhammad Rahan of Mather High School of what he’d tell a prospective Cherub.

Jaziel Juarez of Lake View High School adds: “And the fact that it’s Northwestern, which is known for science, you can’t pass up an opportunity like that.”