My 2017 Commencement Speech at Wayne State University

On Thursday, May 4th, 2017, I had the opportunity to deliver the commencement speech at Wayne State University’s Graduation Ceremony for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology in Detroit, Michigan. As a proud Wayne State University alumnus, when I was given the invitation, I was beyond pumped! To be able to speak directly to the 2017 graduating class of a university that means the world to me, it was a pleasure. And to be able to share the stage with Derek Daniels (my close mentor and very good friend), it was surreal, to say the least.

Interested in what I said?

If the answer is yes, then you’re in luck because my commencement speech was captured on video. So, if you have 15-minutes to spare, feel free to check it out.

I have a transcript, too.

If reading is more your thing, below you will see a transcript of my commencement speech. Give it a peep, buddy.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Dr. Daniels, and a huge thank you to every single Wayne State University community member that is sitting right behind me on this stage. Each one of you has positively impacted me as a speech-language pathologist, and each one of you on this stage has also positively impacted each and every one of our students. Also, a big thank you to the parents, family members, and close friends here today with the students. They, too, have helped to mold these students to who we see right now. And what a fine bunch of students we have in this auditorium today. You women and men are the future leaders of the fields of audiology and speech-language pathology. Seriously, the future. Let’s clap it up for that one.

Let’s take a moment to do something. For our students right now, what I would love for you to try is to turn around and look at each other, and what I’d like for you guys to do is verbalize these simple words. I’d like for you to say, we are the future. I’ll wait. Give it a go. I know it might feel awkward, but we need to say this. All right, all right. And now, I’m going to push you a little bit out of your comfort zone, because that’s what we’re all about as clinicians. Pushing people gently out of their comfort zones. What I’m going to ask you to do is on three, I want you to try to shout loud and proud, we are the future. All right, guys? Just our students. Ready? One, two, three. We are the future. Now, how did that feel? I bet you, it felt really good, and it should feel good because the truth is, that is the truth. You are the future, and I am honored and privileged to have this invitation to speak to you guys today. This is truly a privilege to be able to be a part of this celebration for all of the hard work that you’ve put in here at Wayne State University.

All of you audiology students, you’ve looked inside a lot of ears over these years. You’ve probably seen your fair share of earwax that might have made you scream at times, but it comes with the territory if you want to become an audiologist. You pushed through for the greater good. And let’s not forget about you speech-language pathology students. You’ve done your fair share of oral mech examinations, and in those experiences, you probably have seen some icky things at times or maybe even you’ve gotten bitten a couple times. Kiddos these days, they have very sharp teeth. I know I’ve gotten my fair share of battle wounds, but it comes with the territory if you want to become a speech language pathologist. You push through for the greater good. Well, congratulations, because today is your greater good. You’re finally here. In a few moments, you’re going to be walking across this stage and you’re going to get that great diploma and you’re going to have that opportunity to become that great audiologist or that great speech-language pathologist that you know you were destined to be.

Life is going to be great, but here’s the honest truth. You’re still going to see some ear wax and you’re still going to get bit after graduation. There’s no getting away from that, but the good news is this. You’re finally going to get paid in the process, which means you can now start paying off your college loans. Or, if you’re feeling a little crazy, you can take a trip on down to Greek Town Casino and maybe try your luck at some slots, but we should probably not do that. Just pay off those college loans.

In all seriousness, here’s what really excites me. Here’s what gets me jazzed, what gets me pumped to be standing up here speaking to you. You are entering a field that needs you. Somewhere, someone is experiencing swallowing difficulties. That someone is embarrassed because every single time she sits down to eat a meal with her friends, she starts to cough uncontrollably. She doesn’t know what’s going on, but you as a speech-language pathologist, you do know what’s going on and you can help that person. That person needs your expertise. You are entering a field that needs you.

Or, how about this? Somewhere, someone is experiencing hearing difficulties. That someone is frustrated because he can’t seem to hear the baseball announcer as good as he used to when he goes to see the Detroit Tigers play at Comerica Park. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but you as an audiologist, you do, and you can help. That person needs your expertise. You are entering a field that needs you.

And somewhere, someone has a young son, maybe three years old, and that young son is not talking. That someone is confused because it seems like everyone else’s child is talking, and that someone can’t help but wonder if she did something wrong as a mother to cause her son to not talk. She doesn’t know what’s going on, but you as a speech-language pathologist, you do, and you can help that person. That person needs your expertise. You are entering a field that needs you.

As a speech-language pathologist who has worked in both school settings as well as hospital settings, I figured this could be a great opportunity for me to share some advice with you so that you could hit the ground running day one when you take your first job. You can take some of this advice or you can leave, but I hope that you would take it, because I feel like it’s some pretty good stuff. Without further ado, let the advice giving commence.

I’m going to give you five pieces of advice, and the first one is this. Never ask a client to do something that you’re not willing to do, and the best example that I can share with you from my experience as an SLP is when I was working in a hospital setting. A couple times of week, I would have to do MBSs. Those are modified barium swallow tests. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a fancy-schmancy x-ray machine that allows us to see the swallowing in real time of a person. So the way that we can see the swallow happen in real time is, there’s different bits of food, and on the different bit of food we put either barium gel or barium powder, and that allows us to see on the x-ray where the food is going down. Is it going down the right pipe or is it going down the wrong pipe?

In this particular situation, I had an older gentleman who looked at me and he was communicating to me with his eyes that he did not want to see me. He did not want to go forth and do that MBS experience with me. I tried to let him know that this is very important. This is going to help us help you so that you can be able to eat. You can get your nutrition back. But he was just not having it. What he said to me next was something that really stuck with me. He looked at the graham cracker that I had in front of him, and there’s a little bit of white paste on the graham cracker, and he said to me, “Hey kid. Did you ever eat that crap before?” In that moment, I couldn’t lie to him and I said to him, no sir. I have not. He proceeded to tell me, “You know what? I’ll eat that crap right after you eat that.” Without thinking, guys, I grabbed that graham cracker and I threw it right in mouth and I chomped and I swallowed. You know what? It wasn’t really that bad. The next sound that happened after my swallow is a sound I’ll never forget. This gentleman starting laughing. Laughing so hard. Pure, joyous laughter. Not maniac laughter. He really enjoyed what just happened, and he said to me, “Kid, I didn’t know you’d do that.” I said to him, “Sir, I didn’t think I would either.”

That’s the perfect example that brought me back to the clinician that I wanted to be. I want to make sure that I’m never putting my clients in a state where they feel I’ve not also walked in those shoes. Now, sometimes it’s impossible, but we as clinicians, we’re very creative. We can find ways to at least attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of our clients. If I could leave you with one piece of advice, it’s simply just to never ask your client to do something that you have not attempted to do in some fashion.

Number two – we’ve got five. We’re up to two. I want you guys to be careful where you throw things out. This is a little bit along the lines of the school setting, but check out this quick story. Every Tuesday and Thursday when I first started at this particular school, this is about 10 years ago now, I had a wonderful second-grader who was working on his speech sound disorders. He was obsessed with dinosaurs, and every single Tuesday and Thursday, he would draw me a beautiful picture of a dinosaur.

So, when you start in September, you have a couple dinosaurs. When, you get into December, you’ve got a couple more dinosaurs, and then come June, you’ve got a mountain of dinosaur pictures. We were ending the school year, and I was cleaning up my area, and what I did was, I decided to recycle these wonderful dinosaur pictures. I put them in the garbage. Then, there was a little knock on the door – it’s my buddy. He has a coffee gift card that he wants to give me to because he thought I was a great speech teacher. He walks into my room, and his eyes find the garbage can. He looks down at the garbage can. He sees all of his artwork in the trash. I still think about this day in and day out. That was a massive mistake that I made. I need to be more mindful of where I throw things out. And really, what this brings us back to is the power of communication. This particular student was communicating to me his real love for our learning experience by consistently drawing pictures of dinosaurs and giving them to me.

I need to respect that so much more, and I need to be just so much more mindful as to where I am recycling some of these particular pictures. So guys, don’t ever be in the same situation as me. Make sure you put it in your book bag, and if you’re going to recycle drawings, bring them to your home setting. That’s the second bit of advice that I hope that you’ll never have to experience.

Number three, I just want you to be more mindful of technology. We as a 21st century community, we’re lucky. We’re living in a very exciting time where technology is really at our fingertips, and we as clinicians, we can use technology to do a lot of really great things. I want you just to not become too obsessed with technology. Now, I’m a software developer on the part-time, and I have developed a number of specific applications for children who have speech sound disorders. I don’t say that to brag, but I say it to just emphasize how I love technology. Well, one time, I was working with a student and I said to myself, this is the best app. I’m going to use this app with student, because it’s going to blow his mind. It was a basketball app. Together, we could slide our finger across the screen to shoot the basketball. He looked at me and he said, “Mr. Raj, instead of playing in this basketball app, can we actually just go to the gym and shoot real basketball?”

That was a game changer for me because here I am just so obsessed with technology, it forced me to maybe forget about the real physical aspect to learning. We want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of that physical aspect. Yes, technology is appropriate at times, but there’s also times where technology is not appropriate. Be more mindful as you explore your particular work setting and how your style of being an audiologist or an SLP meshes with the technology that you choose to use.

Number four transitions perfectly into this bit of advice. Whenever possible, leave your speech therapy room. As a speech-language pathologist, I’m always understanding the importance of leaving the four walls of where we do therapy, because we understand the importance of generalization and really pushing our clients outside their comfort zone to practice their fantastic communication outside of the speech therapy room. We can really help our clients to make so many amazing leaps and bounds in their communication if we carefully put them outside of our speech therapy room. Take that into consideration as you start to figure out your goals and objectives, as you’re working with your particular client to grow. It’s appropriate to leave the speech therapy room, and with some creativity, you can find ways to leave the speech therapy room.

Number five, the last piece of advice I’d love to share with you is a very simple one, and it’s to always remember to smile. A smile really communicates so much. We as communication professionals, we understand pragmatics and we understand how a smile is really sharing with others how we are happy that they’re in our lives and we are blessed that we have the opportunity to interact with them. Sometimes, when we work with our clients, they are in situations that have really thrown them for a loop. There’s a lot of frustration, anxiety, a lot of fear.

What I have found in the years that I’ve had the opportunity to be an SLP is a simple smile can really start to chip away at some of those fears and anxieties. Don’t be afraid to share your pearly whites with the client in front of you, because smiles are contagious and you’ll be surprised how fast that client’s going to smile back at you. That’s really building that client-clinician relationship that we’re always trying to make as solid as possible.

To you, Wayne State University graduates, today is the day you’ve been waiting for. You’ve made it, and in a few short moments, you will have your degree. To the future speech language pathologists in the audience, welcome to the family. And to the future audiologists in the audience, I can’t wait to work with you. Thank you everyone, and congratulations.

My 2017 Commencement Speech at Wayne State University

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