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Podcast and Q&A With Speech Language Pathologist Alex Middleton ’22: Providing a Voice to Help People Advocate for Themselves
When Alex Middleton ’22 was 18 years old, they were a homeless high school graduate, spending their nights crashing on friends’ couches.
But despite the instability in their personal life, Middleton had known since middle school how they would make their world a better place: providing a voice to help people learn to advocate for themselves as a speech language pathologist.
Middleton made the nearly 2,700-mile trek across the country from their home in San Diego, California, to Syracuse University to study speech language pathology in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Arts and Sciences.
While on campus, Middleton bloomed. Their research on gender-affirming voice and communication modification garnered several awards, including the 2022 Chancellor’s Citation for Excellence in the category of Excellence in Student Research. Middleton was also awarded research grants by both The SOURCE and WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering), and they were a recipient of the University’s Invest in Success and Founders’ scholarships.
After graduating, Middleton is enrolled in Pacific University’s speech language pathology master’s program, where they plan on working with transgender populations and continuing their research.
As the campus community celebrates Pride Month, Middleton, who spent the last four years working as a student assistant in the LGBTQ Resource Center, sat down with us to discuss the important role that scholarship and grant opportunities played in their studies, and the impact faculty had on influencing their career aspirations.
They also address how they became interested in speech language pathology, share the story of how a paperweight convinced them to travel across the country and study at Syracuse University, and why the University’s LGBTQ Resource Center provided a home away from home and a solid support system on campus.
Here is the full conversation with Alex Middleton ’22 on the ’Cuse Conversations podcast. Note: This podcast includes discussion of potentially sensitive topics. Please listen with care. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
01What made you interested in this line of study?
“Through middle and high school, I was always interested in working with disability populations. I worked with the special education classes in peer mentoring programs and was the ambassador of Circle of Friends in high school, which is an organization where they pair up general education students and special education students to guide each other around high school. I was really interested in the work that our speech language pathologist at our high school, Ms. Dempsey, was doing with the Circle of Friends students. Every speech language pathologist I’ve met has been a weirdly happy person. They just love their job. They love their life. And everybody’s like, ‘It’s so rewarding.’ And I’m like, ‘okay, I can talk. I love helping people to be able to talk.’ So here I am.”
02Tell our audience about your speech language pathology research, and how you’ll be applying the lessons learned here at Syracuse University in your master’s program at Pacific University.
“I’m really excited! Pacific is one of 47 universities out of the 270 universities in the country with a speech language pathology program that has a program for working with transgender populations specifically. I found my niche in speech language pathology in my sophomore year at Syracuse University, and that was through working at the LGBTQ Resource Center. There, I learned about gender-affirming voice and communication modification, or as it was called then transgender voice modification. That has all of the science behind understanding resonance and pitch and how to modify voice and language, and it has the social aspect of how people interpret gendered language or language in general. I was immediately interested, and I went up to my mentor, Stephanie McMillen, in the Diversity in Language and Literacy Lab, and expressed my interest. I did an independent study and read up about the techniques used, and I realized there isn’t a lot of discussion about this already out there in the field. So I developed a survey with Dr. McMillen and we did a national survey of speech language pathologists who work clinically with populations currently, and we asked them about their training to work with transgender populations based off of their graduate school training, and any extra kind of things they might have sought out to support transgender clients.”
03What role did your training and work with faculty play in your development in the speech language pathology field?
“Here at Syracuse, I was able to get my foot in the door with research. There has been a heavy research focus on my education, and I appreciate that as somebody who wants to go into research. For my mentor, Dr. McMillen, this was her plan all along to get me on the tenured research track. And especially the professors in speech language pathology in the communication sciences and disorders program have all been fantastic and really supportive of their students wherever possible. [Assistant Teaching Professor] Laura Vincent opened my mind by letting her students know about her path into speech language pathology, and Dr. McMillen, I don’t even know how to properly credit her. She has done everything for me. She helped me start this project, got me involved in all of her projects and was always introducing new scholarship opportunities to me. Scholarship opportunities have been especially important to me. I came into Syracuse University from homelessness. I was kicked out of my house at the age of 18, and I was couch surfing before coming to Syracuse. All of the opportunities that I have had throughout the past four years and being able to do everything I have done has come through scholarships and grants.”
04You went from being homeless to winning University awards for your research on gender-affirming voice and communication modification. How were you able to overcome an incredible amount of adversity to make a bright future for yourself?
“This is actually why I like speech language pathology, because I’ve always been able to use my voice to advocate for my needs. I had always been a 4.0 student, and I always participated in class. Nobody was really worried so much about my academic progress. I was also a tri-varsity athlete. I was incredibly involved in clubs and everything at school, and I always knew that I would be able to work my way through school, get a good scholarship and go to college. I’ve been planning this since elementary school. It was not luck at all. It was very much planned that I would work hard and get my way out. I’m very lucky that there are people in my life that told me that I could do that, and believed in me. [When I got to] Syracuse University, I started living in Day Hall, and I felt a sense of stability that I hadn’t felt in a long time. … I was put in touch with [Associate Vice President of Parent Engagement and the Student Experience] Colleen Bench, who at the time worked in the parents’ office, and she helped me with understanding Syracuse University, understanding university life in general and how to navigate everything. From there, I was connected to the LGBTQ Resource Center and I very quickly started using that as a home. I spent a lot of time in the LGBTQ Resource Center, and when I started complaining about having to use my student work-study program, they offered me a job, so I worked there for four years.”
05How did you develop your resilient attitude?
“Partially, I think it’s internal. I don’t know how I did it. Therapy definitely helps—I recommend it. But there’s always been something that I cling onto. I struggle with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. And I’m not saying this is a solid plan or even easy, but there’s always been at least one aspect of life that I’ve been like, ‘Okay, I love this. Let me focus on staying alive and keeping going for this.’ For a lot of time, that was my little brother, who I felt like I raised a little bit growing up. I held on for him, and I wouldn’t have gone to Syracuse University without his blessing. I was about to accept my offer of a full ride to San Diego State, and I got a text from my brother during my third-period class. I went to his classroom and he hands me a Syracuse University paperweight and says, ‘Alex, I won this during my last class and it’s the sign that you need to go to Syracuse University.’ I have the paperweight here in my room. That was the sign I needed.”
06What role has the LGBTQ Resource Center played in your life, and how did it help you become the person you are today?
“The Syracuse University LGBTQ Resource Center has been home for me. When I started going, there was always a student staff member there to talk to me and be welcoming. There were game nights, there were things that kept my mind off of the scary part of being at college and feeling alone. I came to really love the people in the LGBTQ Resource Center. I gained a lot of friends and knowledge of how the University works. I even saw my first snow there! … I was always learning about how to be more respectful of people, I was learning more about different cultures and other people, and that felt like a place to thrive, to be able to grow myself within the safety of people that I knew loved me for who I am.”