Last week, I taught my last class to the second year graduate students. Next semester they will all fly the nest and be scattered all over the U.S. completing their externships, the last step in their graduate careers. I have taught these students five separate courses in graduate school, at least one per semester since Day 1 with two courses over the summer. Some of these students I also taught in undergrad for two to three courses and I have known them for four years. I have also supervised them in clinic and helped them grow into speech-language pathologists.
Typically, I teach the graduate students only three courses and the last one wraps up in the summer. It is usually very anti-climatic because summer is so fast and furious, we are all so tired when it is over, and even though we are finished formally spending time in a classroom together, we will still see each other often in the clinic and around the halls. It is just the formality of the classroom that is missing, so it seemed weird to offer any parting thoughts. However, with the end of fall semester and the fact that I won't ever have these students together as a captive audience, I felt the need to attempt to wax eloquently about the time that we have spent together, the wonderful careers that await them, and the joy of being a speech-language pathologist. I was feeling emotional, so I basically rambled in a very inelegant manner, tried not to tear up, and cracked a few jokes. A few students teared up as well, and I got flustered and we just wrapped things up.
So, here's what I wish I had said (with apologies to Randy Pausch):
The last day of any class is emotional for me, but it's especially true with graduate students. And even more true this year because of how many classes we have spent together.
I have known some of you for almost four years and the rest of you a year and a half. I saw your nervous, excited faces that first week of graduate school as you wondered what you had gotten yourself into after all of that worrying and fretting about getting into grad school. You had achieved your goal and you were optimistic and confident, but a little anxious about what to expect. You jumped in with both feet and read, answered questions, tentatively began your first clinical assignments. Meanwhile, I was frantically trying to learn your names and a little about you.
Over the weeks, your sense of humor began to emerge. I got to know you in a different way as I worked with you in clinic, chatted with you in the hallway, or met with you in my office. The little cliques borne of familiarity of those who attended the same undergraduate college began to meld and a real camaraderie developed amongst you as a whole. You started to loosen up, become more comfortable with your skills and knowledge, and more open about what you didn't know.
A lot of emotional ground has been covered in this past year and a half. When we work (live?) together in the “garden level” for 40+ hours a week, we get to know each other pretty well. There's been a battle (and victory!) against cancer, as well as some other serious health challenges among your cohort. Some of you have lost family members and walked through that grief even while attending school. You have had your hearts broken. You have been stressed and overwhelmed and not always performed your best. More than a few of you have cried in my office because of tough clinic problems, fear of your abilities, or the general stress of grad school.
But there have been times of joy as well! There have been many, many engagements and quite a few marriages that have occurred during these past four semesters, including an engagement in the department! I have had to keep up with ever-changing last names and remain dazzled at how you got married on a Saturday and turned in a complex assignment the following week. There have been inside jokes, the excitement of seeing your clients “get it,” and the feeling of accomplishment when you “got it.”
I feel good about your knowledge and skills and confident that you know how to use resources to find out what you don't know. As you go into your externship, you will find out that there is a lot you don't know. That's okay. There is no way for us to teach you everything and no way for you to learn it all. Remember to embrace that cognitive dissonance. That means you are growing and learning. That keeps you on your toes and that makes your career stimulating and interesting. The day that you feel 100% confident in your skills and knowledge is the day that you should retire. The questions and the puzzles are the learning opportunities to embrace because they will stretch you and help you develop into your best self as a clinician.
Also, never forget that you are working with people. You aren't working with that “cleft palate kid” or that “guy with Broca's.” You are working with individuals and their families–real people with dreams, hopes, accomplishments, hurts, and all sorts of feelings. One of my biggest beliefs in life is that all people want two things: (1) to be loved and (2) to have a friend. Communication is essential for being able to develop those relationships. One of my heroes, Helen Keller, was once asked if she had a choice, would she prefer to be blind or deaf? She responded with “Blindness separates people from things. Deafness separates people from people.” You are in the business of giving people a way to communicate with other people–that is the essence of what makes us human. We are social animals, meant to live in community with each other and you get to play a role in faciliating that and making that happen. Don't ever, ever forget what a sacred honor and privilege that is.
As you go on and get your CCCs and start your first jobs, you will find that Medicare red tape, billing, reports, IEPs, and various bureaucractic policies will eat your time and start to steal your joy. Those are necessary evils of the real world and they are also crucial for you to do so that you get a paycheck. However, keep your focus on your clients, your relationship with them, and the ultimate goals of communication. Step back and be grateful that they allow you into their inner circles and that they reveal their soft under-belly to you as they struggle to communicate and allow you to see their weaknesses. Be an advocate for them and a voice when they have none. Be dazzled by the complexity of language, speech, and the messy process of human communication. Be in awe of the brain and its mysteries, knowing that you will never understand it, but seeking to always know more about how it works. Push your clients harder than they think they can endure, but never focus so hard on your own goals that you forget to ask what their goals are. Be humble and admit when you don't know something, but be resourceful and try to find the answer. Do a good day's work, but then leave it at work.
With all the good you are doing in the world, you must take care of yourself and your family first and foremost. Don't give the people you love the most your leftovers. They deserve the best you. Finding that balance is tricky, but make it a priority. For that, I will leave you with the words from one of my favorite contemporary poets, Jane Kenyon. I have this in my office and look at it often:
I am proud of each one of you and so glad that the paths of our lives have intersected.
Go and do great things.