University Communications

The Newsletter for Marshall University        May 25, 2011

Profile: Karen McComas

Karen McComas and her family like to joke that they "bleed green" and indeed, with eight Marshall degrees among the four members of the family, that’s a pretty safe bet. Then add in her father’s degree, and that makes nine.

Actually, Karen is the latest to add more letters after her name, having graduated with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction last December. It was the culmination of a long academic journey that actually started when she left Michigan, where she was born, to follow in the footsteps of her father, a Huntington native.

“Marshall has always been a big bargain,” McComas, who is an associate professor of communication disorders, says. “I grew up in the small town of Lake City, Michigan, and since my father was from the Huntington area, it seemed a natural thing to come here because it was nearly as cheap for my parents to send me to Marshall here as it was for me to go to school in Michigan.”

But luckily, her academic path was not without some unexpected twists and turns, although it didn’t appear to be so precipitous at the time. After a frustrating year spent in a field in which she had little interest, and in which consequently she wasn’t doing well, her attention was caught by a resident assistance in her dormitory as she worked on her major, speech pathology. And just like that, the whole course of McComas' career path was changed. “It seemed interesting, so I just randomly picked it as a major and it turned out to be an excellent fit for me. That experience taught me a great lesson; sometimes things happen and it really is for the best. It taught me about possibilities and to move forward and not back and to not stay in the same place. It’s not so much about whether you can or cannot do it something, but whether it is a good fit ... is this the right field for you, for example.”

And indeed speech pathology and communication disorders have been an excellent lifelong fit for her. McComas spent three years as a speech/language pathologist in Carter County, Ky., before talking a similar position in West Virginia’s Lincoln County, where she worked for the next five years. Her duties on these jobs were many and varied.
“Speech pathologists generally deal with prevention, identification and management of communication disorders,” she explains. “We work with people from birth to death, from newborns to people in nursing homes. There are all kinds of disorders—speech errors, stuttering, voice disorders, swallowing disorders--which are more common in the elderly, particularly those who have suffered strokes--and there are all types of degenerative diseases.”

Today the Marshall Department of Communication Disorders offers a broad spectrum of services from speech, language and voice to hearing problems. A speech and hearing clinic is located on the first floor of Smith Hall, which also serves as a teaching tool for graduate students. “The students provide clinical services supervised by faculty members. They are getting practical experience they can’t get in the classroom.”

Fortunately many problems associated with speech can be detected early, many times before a child enters pre-school, she stresses. Most schools now offer screenings, with a goal of reaching as many children as possible, and a wide range of problems can fall under the communication disorders umbrella. She quickly ticks off a list of services available at Marshall. “We do some hearing testing, although we don’t have a full-blown audiology program. We have the Luke Lee Language, Listening, and Learning Lab for preschoolers who are severely hearing impaired. The lab was named for the first client it served. There is the Scottish Rite Child Language Center, a program funded by the Scottish Rite, which provides a clinical position for a speech therapist."

McComas credits a supportive family for her academic achievements. Married during her first year of graduate work, she was encouraged by her husband, Mike, who has two Marshall degrees, to continue her studies. Both her husband and their son, Christopher, work at Mountwest Community and Technical College.  But she was reluctant until her children, including daughter Katie, were older. So years after she completed her M.A., she finally made time to complete an Ed.D. She’s proud that Katie, who has two Marshall degrees in communication disorders and currently is employed at Cardinal Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington, Ky., is completing her first year of doctoral work at the University of Kentucky.

Now after 25 years as a Marshall faculty member, McComas says her body clock is always semester driven. “I’ve been in school since I was four,” she says, laughing. She’s seen numerous changes on the Huntington campus. Buildings have come and gone, the landscape has been altered here and there, but the feel of the campus is just the same as when she was an eager freshman living in what is now Buskirk Hall. “The campus is really beautiful, I especially love fall here. I always look forward to the beginning of the fall semester, it’s so energizing.” In fact, the campus setting was so appealing she and her husband, whom she met while they were both students, were married in the Campus Christian Center.

She’s a huge advocate for her field but concerned about the growing national shortage of speech pathologists. West Virginia in particular is feeling the shortage, she says, because its rural nature and economic problems make it difficult for schools to compete with private groups, such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers, for qualified professionals. Her dissertation, in fact, dealt with the shortage of doctoral-level faculty in her field.

A dedicated journal writer, she writes every day and her journals now number about 100. Her journaling started in 1997 when she began working with the Writing Project, first locally and later nationally, heading up a large technology project for seven years. The whole family are avid sports fans and fall sees them at every Herd game they can possibly get to. And summer means a big family reunion in Michigan with her brother and sister and their families. “I love catching up with my family on these visits. My dream is to have a cottage up north and go up there for all summer and just write.”

With her love of writing, it’s no surprise that she has written numerous professional articles and currently is writing an article based on the Community of Research Practice (CORP), an initiative in communication disorders to support research in programs by both faculty and students. This summer she will also be developing a book proposal based on her dissertation study.

She is mellow about her years at Marshall, and grateful that she fortuitously veered off her first career path. “I am very fortunate. In 33 years since I got out of school, there have only been three or four times when I didn’t want to go to work. Every day is different, exciting ... there’s always a new challenge, a problem to solve. As a teacher, every client is different. That’s why my real interest is teaching and learning, which is what a speech pathologist is.”

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