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Graduate feature: Annie Fochs

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Annie Fochs will graduate Dec. 16 with a bachelor's degree in communication sciences and disorders and certificates in speech-language pathology assistant and American Sign Language, all in 3½ years.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories profiling Blugolds graduating in December.

Senior Annie Fochs took a leap of faith to make a major change to her last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this fall, commuting weekly to Neillsville to work alongside a speech-language pathologist.

Thanks to a unique opportunity to pilot a new certificate program in communication sciences and disorders (CSD), Fochs now is graduating with 100 recent clinical practicum hours in area public schools as a speech-language pathology assistant (SLPA). She says she’s grateful for the chance to better prepare for graduate school in speech-language pathology.

“I’m not normally a person to venture too far outside of my comfort zone, and jumping into this program definitely pushed me there, but I’m so thankful I trusted my faculty and went for it,” the Mosinee native says.

A grant-funded certificate giving Blugolds unprecedented experience

As one of just two Blugolds to complete the first SLPA certificate this fall, Fochs helped address the needs of Neillsville students in grades K-10 with various language, speech and hearing deficits.

“It’s been a great experience, and I feel so prepared for graduate school,” Fochs says.

“Most grad school applicants for this field have little to no clinical experience. We now have quadruple the number of hours that other applicants might have. That’s been an amazing bonus in my final semester as a Blugold. Plus, it offers me a whole new job lane to consider before or during graduate school.”

Dr. Abby Hemmerich, professor and chair of the CSD department, explains the development of the certificate as part of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grant. The intent is to prepare graduates like Fochs to step into much needed roles in a field suffering with widespread staffing shortages.

“Annie’s role as a student SLPA is to help children work toward their communication goals. Her ability to be a steady, calm, encouraging presence for these kids as they work on really challenging communication targets is what makes her such a wonderful assistant,” Hemmerich says.

“There is a shortage of speech-language pathologists available to fill open positions. Ours is the only certificate program in Wisconsin that we are aware of, and we hope to benefit the state by graduating both speech-language pathologists from our graduate program and speech-language pathology assistants from our undergraduate program to fill those needs.”

Further legislation in Wisconsin would be needed to solidify more opportunities for SLPAs in state school districts and medical facilities, according to Hemmerich. Currently, certificate completion will allow access to licensure in Minnesota, Illinois, North or South Dakota.

Two certificates in hand and leaning toward a career in education

For Fochs, the SLPA certificate may have been the latest addition to her bachelor’s degree, but it was not the first. She also completed a certificate in American Sign Language (ASL).

“Learning sign language was really interesting,” Fochs says. “I haven’t worked with any Deaf children in the schools as an SLP assistant, but the ASL skills have been useful in other ways. I use basic signs with several students who prefer signs to language at times. It’s been fun to teach them a few new signs they did not already know.”

Fochs says she also looks forward to getting involved with the Deaf community in her future home city and maintaining her ASL while taking part in events.

With commencement just days away, Fochs is looking forward to graduate school and taking full advantage of the additional opportunities her Blugold career offers her.

“I did consider seeking an SLPA job straight from graduation because I’ve loved the work I’ve been doing. But working with the children and professionals during this practicum has reinforced my desire to complete my master’s degree, sooner than later,” Fochs says.

Fochs will seek her SPLA certification from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and work in that capacity throughout the spring as she awaits graduate school decisions.

“I once thought I’d be more interested in a hospital setting as a speech-language pathologist, but this certificate experience has shown me that I am well suited for work in an education setting, so that is my goal,” Fochs says. “And until grad school, I will still be able to interact in therapy sessions with students as an SLPA, which for me is the best part.”

Hemmerich says she and the CSD faculty have been pleased with this pilot of the certificate program and look forward to launching the full program next semester.

“Our students have put their classroom learning to use in schools, helping young kids. It’s so exciting to watch them transition from student to clinician in such a short time,” Hemmerich says. “They’re ready for these jobs.”