My Journey From Linguistics Major to Advocate for Speech-Language Pathology Programs in China

While studying at UC Berkeley, my interest in languages led me to pursue a major in linguistics. As someone who is bilingual (Chinese and English), I am passionate about language because it helps me perceive the world around me and connect with people from different backgrounds and cultures. I enjoy communicating with people from all walks of life! However, as graduation approached, I was uncertain about what to do next. During this period of introspection, I stumbled upon the term speech-language pathologist (SLP) on our department’s website. Intrigued, I embarked on a journey of research and discovery, uncovering a profession with a history spanning almost a century.

A Look at Speech-Language Pathology in China

As I explored the profession and this potential new career path, I discovered that the speech-language pathology profession in China remains in its infancy, with only seven universities offering programs.

According to the Second National Sample Survey of Persons With Disabilities, more than 27.8 million people have speech and hearing rehabilitation needs in China. Moreover, the country faces a severe shortage of SLP professionals, with fewer than 1,200 SLPs practicing throughout all of China. Similar to patients in the early 20th century in Western societies, many patients in China struggle to find a way to rehabilitate. Although many Chinese universities offer a rehabilitation and therapeutic major, those programs typically encompass a broad range of physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), and speech therapy (ST). And, in those majors, coursework emphasizes PT and OT more than they emphasize speech and hearing.

Although some statistics reveal that up to 5% of preschool-aged children experience speech disorders, communication disorders also affect adults—these disorders often arise from strokes, aphasia, sudden deafness, degenerative hearing disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. Notably, stuttering affects individuals of all ages, with a prevalence of 1% across the population.

China currently has about 230 million people over age 60 and is the only country in the world with a population of more than 200 million older adults. Consequently, age-related multifocal diseases further compound the prevalence of speech and language disorders. As the aging trend continues, the occurrence of these disorders is projected to increase drastically.

How I Took Action

The lack of trained SLPs in China indicates that there is a great potential for China to develop and grow the profession and help thousands of underserved clients. I realized that becoming an ASHA-certified, Chinese-speaking SLP would combine my passion for language and the sense of self-worth I get from being a facilitator who makes a positive social impact.

Motivated by these pressing circumstances, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in speech-language pathology, and I was fortunate to be accepted into the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University as a first-year graduate student. This year, I’m taking a 1-year leave of absence to promote the development of speech-language pathology in China by Chinese-foreign cooperation. I’m working as an entrepreneur and overseas liaison officer for the China Association of Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons (Special Committee for Communication Disorders) and Beijing Language and Culture University (School of Communication Science). I conducted market research during this winter vacation and found that the biggest problem in China now is that we don’t have enough SLPs, and there also is a lack of systematic education. I organized a team composed of several ASHA-certified SLPs to help Chinese students who want to become SLPs. Coordinated with the launch of relevant policies about China’s rehabilitation education and collaboration with the professionals overseas, I believe that the development of an increased professional presence of SLPs in China will continue to improve.

After receiving my master’s degree, I plan to practice in the United States to gain work experience and then return to China to help more people in need of speech-language pathology services.

Finding Support Along the Way

While many of my undergraduate peers were pursuing double majors in computer or data science—renowned majors at UC Berkeley—I felt that I was charting my own unique path in the profession of speech-language pathology. So, it was important for me to find ways to connect with peers and professors. I was excited as I met Chinese classmates who shared my passion and who were also studying speech-language pathology in Boston. In addition, collaborating in groups and reviewing course materials together made the coursework more manageable.

I found professors like Dr. Theresa Jingyun Yao, who is approachable and willing to provide helpful advice about pursuing a career as an SLP. She told me about ASHA’s Student to Empowered Professional (S.T.E.P.) program, which helps build a mutually beneficial bridge between experienced speech-language pathology professionals and self-motivated students who are eager to learn. I would like to enroll in this program because I want to prepare myself for the Clinical Fellowship Year after graduation.

I believe that every aspiring SLP has their own unique motivation for pursuing this profession and becoming an ASHA-certified SLP. As you progress along this journey, there may be challenges. So don’t hesitate to seek help and actively look for answers. Embracing the opportunities available will open doors to your personal growth and professional development. Remember: The key to success lies in your preparedness to seize the opportunities that come your way!

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