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Shannon Heffernan ’21 Gives Voice to the Voiceless

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From a young age, Shannon Heffernan ’21 enjoyed volunteering and giving back to people in her community who were in need.

At her high school, The Ursuline School in New Rochelle, NY, she created an event called Extra Special Athletes, a day dedicated to children ages 4-14 with special needs in which every child was paired with a student from her high school who participated in activities with them.

Shannon Heffernan '21
Shannon Heffernan ’21

It’s fitting, then, that she is entering the field of speech pathology, where she can help people dealing with disabilities, post-stroke trauma and brain injuries.

“I want to continue to give back to my community, and I believe this is a field in which I can truly make a change in the lives of those in need,” said Heffernan, who is working toward TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification in linguistics. “As a speech language pathologist, I can give a voice to the voiceless.”

When Heffernan arrived at Stony Brook, she was selected as a University Scholar, landing her right in her element. With stewardship as a key pillar, University Scholars pledge to serve the community.

As an outreach co-chair for University Scholars, from December 2018 to December 2019, Heffernan headed up efforts to create banners for Stony Brook Children’s Hospital; visited residents at an assisted living facility, Atria, located in Setauket, NY; and performed cleanup at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck, a camp for children with special needs in Center Moriches, NY.

Earlier, while Heffernan was still in high school, she met many students who attended GiGi’s Playhouse, a national nonprofit network of Down syndrome achievement centers.

“I saw on their website that they were in need of summer math tutors,” Heffernan said. “I inquired about the position and was thankful to receive very thorough and eye-opening training at the playhouse.”

After she completed her training, Heffernan was paired with a child for the duration of the summer. All of the lessons were multisensory and lasted roughly 45 minutes. To engage the student, sessions usually began with a game and always ended with celebrating a success the child had that week.

She also met with the children’s parents and came up with goals — for example, practical skills such as counting money or identifying signs and shapes in real-world situations — for the students to try to complete by the end of the summer.

“I learned to change plans on the spot, as well as cater to the student and their specific needs that day,” she said. “I realized that regardless of how much I planned, I always needed to be flexible and ready with a different activity.”

But of her many outreach activities, Heffernan said she is most proud of her stewardship with Project Sunshine, creating craft bags for patients on the oncology floor at Stony Brook University Hospital and a banner for the unit.

“Collaborating with other student groups for outreach events was uncommon at the time with the Scholars. This event was special because we worked within our community. Usually the Scholars community would go somewhere that was not affiliated with Stony Brook.”

As for academics, Heffernan is currently immersed in a project with far-reaching implications and interest: second language phonetics of native Mandarin graduate students at Stony Brook University. The project’s objective is to analyze native Mandarin speakers’ English and see if it improves after they spend two years in the United States as graduate students.

When she was a sophomore, Heffernan conducted research on the Carihona language, a Brazilian tongue, working with José Elías-Ulloa, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics, who had gone on a field trip to the Amazon and recorded some of the native speakers.

As Elías-Ulloa’s research assistant, Heffernan transcribed the recordings into the International Phonetic Alphabet. The goal of the project was to identify the vowels and sounds present in the Carihona language and their phonemic environments.

To augment her academic endeavors with experiential learning, Heffernan shadowed a speech language pathologist in both school and clinical settings. “Shadowing allowed me to see the versatility of the field,” said Heffernan. “I enjoyed observing the individualized progress of students in the school setting and I also found the multifaceted cases in the clinical setting intriguing.”

When she completes her undergraduate studies this upcoming spring, she plans to enroll in a master’s program focused on clinical services to further her education and attain licensure.

“Speech language pathologists work with every age group in hospitals for various reasons, so as a post-grad I hope to obtain a wide range of experiences, which can best be gained in a hospital or hospital-like setting,” Heffernan said. “I think I would enjoy the fast-paced motion of the healthcare field, as well as the diversity of cases I would be given.”

— Glenn Jochum

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