There is a great need for speech-language pathologists and audiologists to serve Native American communities, not just in the Northwest but around the country. In response, Washington State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences offers a program that encourages Native American students to pursue professional education in these fields.

Speech, language and hearing disorders occur at a 5 to 15 percent greater frequency for Native Americans than the general population, and an estimated 74 percent may not be receiving services.

With only 21 nationally certified, Native American speech-language pathologists in the Northwest, the need for more is acute. “Often there are communication differences associated with culture, and Native American professionals can help to ensure that we are not mistaking these for communication disorders,” said Ella Inglebret, assistant professor and Native American program director in WSU’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

For more than a decade, Inglebret has worked to attract Native American students to the program. “In contrast to a discipline like nursing, where students are aware of it from a young age, speech and hearing sciences is a less visible career choice for potential students,” said Inglebret.

However, departmental recruitment and retention efforts have paid off. Over the past 10 years, 27 percent of Native American students graduating with a master’s degree from WSU have come through the Speech and Hearing Sciences Department.

“There is a large support system here with the faculty, staff and instructors, and they’re always willing to help if you run into difficulties,” said Joanne Harrison, a senior in the department. “Coming from a Native community, a support network is very important to me.”

Harrison plans to graduate in December, then return to the Quileute Reservation in LaPush, where she said there is a need for more speech and hearing services.

Inglebret recently received the Advancing Academic-Research Careers Award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Funding will, in part, allow Inglebret to conduct research exploring factors associated with the success of Native students, like Harrison, in receiving degrees in the field of speech and hearing sciences. Greater awareness of these factors will aid higher education institutions in building programs that better meet the needs of Native American learners, Inglebret said.