Helena Gruenstern is a postgraduate Speech and Language Therapy student.
How did you develop an interest in Speech and Language and why did you choose to study Speech and Language Therapy at City, University of London?
I first developed an interest in Speech and Language during my undergraduate degree in English Language at Cardiff University, where I was exposed to the development of language, communication disorders and speech sounds in the English language. I also volunteered with the Stroke Association alongside a Speech and Language Therapist helping to deliver therapy sessions.
I chose to study Speech and Language Therapy at City, University of London because it is the largest and most well-established postgraduate Speech and Language Therapy course in the UK. Many of the lecturers at City are specialists in their field ensuring we were taught the most up to date and relevant research. We also have lectures given by guest lecturers and specialist clinicians, providing us with their daily experiences and what practices and techniques work ‘in the real world’.
What did you enjoy most about the course?
My favourite parts of the course were our time spent on clinical placements and clinical tutorials. I really appreciated having time to experience speech and language therapy in action and to build up my clinical skills before qualifying. Clinical tutorials were a great opportunity to problem solve and share our clinical experiences and new knowledge with other peers. I also really enjoyed the audiology and phonetics lectures as they opened my eyes to other areas where speech and language therapists can work.
What did you enjoy most about your time at City?
City has a great support network and I found my personal and clinical tutors a great source of help when I had questions; both course related and life after City related. The mentorship committee also provided us all with peer support networks across both first and second year postgraduates. There was a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities offered at the university and we were all encouraged to have our say in developments happening that involved City, University of London.
How did you benefit from the facilities available at City?
I used the computer labs while studying for acoustic phonetics and audiology. The equipment in these labs was reliable and always available when requested. Part of the course required me to video myself during clinics for various assessments. Our technician Colin Day organised filming equipment and always took the time to teach us how to use the equipment.
The library was home to a lot of different assessments commonly used in speech and language therapy clinics. I would often spend a few hours with other students familiarising ourselves and practising how to administer these assessments to ensure that nothing was a surprise for us on placement. The student support team helped me greatly in developing my clinical writing skills.
Could you tell us about any work placements?
I was very lucky with my clinical work placements, I had two child placements and three adult placements. Personally I am interested in speech and language therapy with adults so I was very happy with this ratio, but I could have requested alternatives. I enjoyed all my placements. On my dysphagia placement at a South London teaching hospital I experienced the fast-paced hospital life and the life-saving management of swallowing disorders.
I also had a community-based placement in North London where I experienced providing speech and language therapy to people in their homes. It was this placement that influenced my decision to start my working life as a community-based Speech and Language Therapist. I was also involved in a Speech and Language Information Technology (SPLIT) course which is run by staff and students at City. During this I experienced a different style of delivering speech and language therapy, one that I always keep in mind when creating management plans for clients.
What would be your advice to anyone considering studying Speech and Language Therapy?
This course was highly enjoyable and whilst there were points that were challenging all the staff were there to support everyone through it and successfully prepare us for working life as a Speech and Language Therapist. I made some wonderful friendships during the course and we continue to support each other at work regardless of the different fields we have chosen.
Please tell us about the City-Cambodia project and CLAPA.
City-Cambodia Project was set up in 2007 and it is now entering its twelfth year. Each year newly qualified Speech and Language Therapists from City, University of London are selected to volunteer in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh for three to four months. The project aims to develop speech and language therapy in Cambodia and its mission statement is ‘to establish local expertise by empowering local staff to offer basic speech and language services within a multi-disciplinary context, with the aim to improve quality of life and social inclusion for people with speech and language difficulties’. Cleft Lip and Palate Association (CLAPA) donate feeding equipment for the team to give to hospitals in order to provide babies with cleft lip or palate a safe and effective method to ensure they receive adequate nutrition. My colleague and I also posted a weekly blog with CLAPA - https://www.clapa.com/sitetag/overseas/
How did the opportunity to volunteer in Cambodia come about, and how did you apply to take part?
I first heard about the opportunity to volunteer in Cambodia at the open evening talk before the speech and language therapy course began. This sparked my interest in the City-Cambodia Project. Halfway through my second year of the postgraduate course we had a few presentations from Tim Pring and the previous Cambodia volunteers, to explain in more detail what the project involved. This is when I became serious about applying and after an application form and interview, Tim Pring rang me to say that I had been successful.
Please tell us about your time there.
I volunteered in Cambodia from September to December 2017. I was part of the cleft lip and palate team which involved me working at four different hospitals providing local hospital staff with training, to enable them to carry out basic speech or language therapy and provide them with general feeding advice. We also raised awareness about what speech and language therapy is, what we can achieve and who we can help. A new addition to the project in 2017 was the first university course on the basics of Child Speech and Language Therapy, where we created and taught the anatomy and physiology module as well as leading a few tutorials.
What did you enjoy most about this experience?
One of my favourite things about this experience was being immersed in Cambodian culture and working in environments that are so different to my experiences in England. I really appreciated the opportunity to learn new methods and different views that I have taken home and incorporated into my clinical practice and daily life - condensed milk in my coffee is my new favourite drink! I loved sharing our skills and knowledge with local staff and working collaboratively with them to incorporate speech and language therapy into their work.
Were there any aspects you found challenging, and how did you overcome them?
The most obvious challenge for me was the language barrier. There were many times that the meaning I was trying to convey was lost in translation or there was not a direct translation from English to Khmer. While this could be frustrating, we had many laughs about the confusions and would be able to resolve the issue by acting out the meaning or using gestures. Some of Cambodia’s cultural beliefs are different to the UK and sometimes my way of doing a job was not acceptable in Cambodian hospitals. I quickly had to learn a new way of life and respect their culture while working as a speech and language therapist- trying to pass on my clinical skills when my aim was not necessarily understood or received.
What would be your advice to anyone considering taking part in this or similar volunteering opportunities?
My time in Cambodia was one of the best experiences of my life. I feel very privileged to have been a part of the developing world of speech and language therapy and to have had the opportunity to share my speech and language therapy knowledge and skills with others to help improve another country’s healthcare system. I am very proud of everything we managed to achieve in our short time out there. I met some amazing people and have made lifelong friendships. I have built up resilience both in daily life and in the working environment and am now a part of the City-Cambodia Project committee which is an excellent support network. I would recommend this experience to anyone, as I think it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I have learnt so much from it.