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Building her career plans around empathy and cultural awareness: Samantha Ruppert ’22

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: In November 2022, Samantha Ruppert and a cohort of fellow UW-Eau Claire communication sciences and disorders students traveled to New Orleans for a national conference to present their collaborative research.

At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, experiences beyond the classroom often have significant impact on academic and future career success, and few soon-to-be graduates exemplify this as clearly as communication sciences and disorders (CSD) major Samantha Ruppert.

From the University Honors Program and various mentoring roles to multiple cultural immersion trips and presenting collaborative research both locally and across the country, Ruppert has taken each high-impact practice to build her toolkit in communication, cultural competence and empathy — skills she sees as the cornerstones of a career as a speech pathologist.

“The field of CSD really involves the whole life span; it’s working with people of all ages and from all backgrounds,” the Fall Creek native says. “Working with anyone on issues of communication, speech or language all require basic understanding of their lives, and a good understanding of how improving these issues can open up a whole new world to them.”

Ruppert says it’s the relationship building that gets her most excited for the path ahead.

“Having the chance to work one-on-one with people, kids or older adults, we get to build close connections and it’s rewarding to know we’re making an important difference in their lives,” she says.

Bringing Blugold research to the Big Easy

As her graduation date approaches, Ruppert has not backed off on her impressive work in collaborative research. In fact, she just returned from a national conference in New Orleans where she and a couple dozen other CSD students presented their findings at the 2022 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association conference.

Along with her research partner, Mondovi native and fellow CSD major Paige Marsh, Ruppert presented research she has been working on for over a year, a project titled “The power of conversation: Fostering cultural awareness and cultural humility in CSD.” The faculty mentor on the project is Dr. Abby Hemmerich, associate professor and chair of the CSD department.

“Samantha and Paige have explored methods for helping CSD students develop greater cultural awareness and cultural humility,” Hemmerich says. “In our field, as in most fields, developing the ability to work with individuals from a variety of backgrounds is critical.”

Hemmerich describes the method the project advocates as the idea of a “human library,” a concept conceived by an organization in Denmark, in which individuals participate in events as “books,” sharing their personal experiences around something that would typically be considered a stereotype or stigma, and listeners challenge their own understanding of that topic.

“Our project implemented a very small-scale version of this, with students and alumni from our online graduate program serving as the ‘books’ and undergraduate students in our on-campus program serving as the ‘readers,’” Hemmerich says. “They had conversations regarding a variety of topics, including topics of education and health care, and we measured perceptions of cultural awareness.”

Ruppert says this opportunity to present research on such a large stage was both personally and professionally exciting.

“The ASHA conference was a lot of fun and a great experience for growth,” Ruppert says. “It was easy to feel a sense of imposter syndrome surrounded by so many accomplished professionals and interesting research projects, but everyone who stopped at our poster was incredibly encouraging and seemed to be genuinely interested in what we had to say. I was glad to finally get our information out there and I'm excited to see where our group takes the project next as I graduate.”  

Finding deeper connections through University Honors

On Dec. 17, Ruppert will be one of 26 seniors graduating from the University Honors Program, an avenue to academic rigor and challenge that appealed to her, but she says it also has provided important human connections through mentoring.

“I co-lead a section of Honors 100, a class for 17 new first-year Honors students,” Ruppert says. “As seniors, we talk them through the various opportunities available and help them settle into their ‘home’ on campus.”

In addition to making the personal connections with younger Blugolds, the mentoring role has helped her build confidence in public speaking and sharing ideas in large groups.

“Leading class discussions and walking through processes with them has really helped me become more confident,” Ruppert says.

Dr. Heather Fielding, director of the University Honors Program, says Ruppert is effective in both large group settings and one-to-one mentoring in helping younger students navigate their path on campus.

“Sami shared her recent experiences in New Orleans with this group,” Fielding says. “It was powerful for her group of first-year students to hear about this experience firsthand, from a senior they know well.

“Sami is also part of our student-led and -designed peer mentoring program called Honors Helping Honors, which matches entering Honors students with older students. She also excelled in one of our Honors courses that matches junior and senior mentors with Upward Bound high school students in Eau Claire. Through all these outreach programs, Sami exemplified the community spirit we hope to cultivate in University Honors, something I know she will carry through into her career.” 

Taking her quest for understanding overseas

In the summer of 2022, Ruppert was able to attend the first full version since COVID-19 of UW-Eau Claire’s long-standing Central European Travel Seminar (CETS), an interdisciplinary immersion whose home department is history.

Dr. Teresa Sanislo, professor of history and co-lead of the CETS, was impressed with Ruppert’s work in the pre-travel prep course and in the presentations and writings during and after the seminar.

“She showed very high-level understanding of topics so removed from her major,” Sanislo says. “Identifying the historical roots of contemporary controversies, or recognizing the way that engagement with the past is revealed on-site, and then connecting those to experiences to what is happening in the moment takes a lot of intentional thinking, and Sami showed that.”

Sanislo adds that Ruppert was adept at drawing on her general communication skills, reading body language and other social cues to interpret situations across a language barrier while traveling in Central Europe, a region where multiple languages are spoken.  

Sanislo points to an incident Ruppert wrote about in one of her reflections, a group experience seeing a famous Czech opera that was not well received by the local audience because the performance had been stylistically modernized. She says the show was met with boos from the audience, but the Blugold cohort was not exactly sure what was going on at the time. It was later explained by an interpreter.

“She wrote eloquently on all the elements at play in that situation — music history, national identity, cultural tradition, politics. She skillfully tied them all together, connecting everyday experiences and identity with the meanings of our past and present,” Sanislo says. “It would have been hard to know the writer was not a history major.”

As with many previous high-impact practices, Ruppert set her focus on absorbing all the potential aspects of the experiences that might benefit her future work in the field of CSD.

“The whole immersion was very enlightening to me as a speech pathology major,” Ruppert says. “It will impact the way I work in the future across a language barrier or with clients from cultural backgrounds different than my own.”

What’s next?

When asked about her next steps, Ruppert says she looks forward to celebrating her commencement day with friends and family, and plans to move to North Carolina soon thereafter.

“My fiancé is in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he is stationed down there,” she says. “I’ve started applying to graduate schools, one in North Carolina so far, and the online program here at UW-Eau Claire. If something happens for the fall, great, we will see what happens. Throughout school I’ve worked a lot with young kids in our clinical settings, so I look forward to learning more about working with older populations.”