Student Spotlight: Fiona Cheng, M.A. Speech Pathology
Fiona Cheng just graduated from San Diego State with her M.A. in Speech-Language Pathology. She earned her undergrad degree in Communicative Disorders from Cal State Fullerton. Here, she shares what it was like going through the Master’s program at San Diego State.
What was the courseload like?
We had a full schedule of about 16 units a semester. You’re committing your full day. There isn’t much time for a part-time job because we do clinic starting your first semester. You have on-campus clinic your first year, and as well as your classes, so you might be on campus from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., depending on when you have clients.
What about the professors?
The professors are really encouraging and they were really supportive. They wanted us to call them by their first names, which was foreign to me, but I think that really showed they wanted to know us personally.
What were the clinics like? Were you shadowing professors or actually interacting with patients?
They throw you in there. You may have two clients starting off, you may have kids, you may have adults, it depends. Your supervisors help you prep. You’ll do your own case study—look back at the file, research who the client is, if there’s information on that. But you pretty much start off treating the client. There were supervisor guiding us, and you have access to [the second years who were the previous clinicians]. They’re a good resource.
Were most of the professors also actively working in the field?
Yeah…I remember some of them were doing a lot of things at once. The clinical supervisors—I don’t want to misspeak, but I’m pretty sure they all had their own private practice or worked for hospitals or worked in schools.
Were there any other internships or research projects you worked on?
If you’re in a research lab, you can do it for 3 or 6 units. I was part of one focused on preschoolers in underprivileged areas. There are other research labs, say on phonology, bilingualism, aphasia.
[Note: San Diego State has 10 research labs in all, focusing on areas like bilingualism, cognitive basis of language, phonological acquisition and disorders, and more.]
Where else did you apply when you were looking at graduate programs?
I think I applied for 5 schools. Off the top of my head I can’t remember which 5, but I got in to Fullerton, Long Beach, and San Diego State.
Why did you choose Speech-Language Pathology?
[In high school], I was part of Best Buddies … so I had a heart for working with kids with disabilities. One of the speech-language pathologists that worked on campus once a week invited some of the officers in the [Best Buddies chapter at my school] to help in her class. I asked her, hey, what’s your job? And she told me about it and I just fell in love with the field.
I remember going to the children’s hospital in LA and observing what they do there and seeing the medical side of it and it was amazing—the field, what you can do, how to can help people overcome communication barriers.
What made you pick San Diego State?
Location was a big one. And I learned so much from Fullerton, but I wanted to get a different perspective and be in a different area. I’d be still close to family [in Orange County], and San Diego has a great program. When I visited I just fell in love with how supportive the professors were. They were very welcoming.
What did you enjoy most about the program?
My cohort—I have some really close friends from that class because we’re all suffering together. You don’t know what to expect and we’re all in the same boat, we’re all in the dark and freaking out.
What did you enjoy the least? What was the most challenging part of it?
The most challenging part is having expectations that were not realistic. I think going into grad school, [I expected I was] going to learn all this stuff and come out really knowledgeable, but during the program I realized I will never [feel like I] know anything.
You just have this sense of loss of control throughout the whole program, but they’re telling us that this is normal, you guys are learning a lot. A lot of us just felt like we weren’t learning enough, at least not like we wanted to—at least speaking for myself—and I think that struggle of accepting it’s gonna be a long journey, we’re gonna be learning on the job and from people who know a lot more than us [was tough].
Do you feel well-prepared now to go out into the field that you’ve graduated or do you wish you’d done more?
Probably both. They prepared us well in finding resources and giving us a lot of knowledge, but I don’t know how it really looks like in a lot of different settings, because our clinic is limited—my experience of one place will be very different from my classmates who had different experiences.
I think we always want to learn more … if we had more time. But it’s a really rigorous program; it’s just two years and you’re fitting in a lot of clinical hours, a lot of classes—and then you also have social life.
Where are the clinics offered?
For your first year there’s a clinic on campus, in our [Speech, Language, and Hearing Services] building, and then the second year you’re off in schools, hospitals, outpatient in various settings.
Is there anything else about the program that surprised you?
In undergrad, it’s really cutthroat. There’s a lot of competition—hundreds of people in your classes. In grad school, it’s more we’re all in this together. We’ve all made it and we look out for each other, so I think there’s more camaraderie.
Is there anything specific you did in undergrad or before applying to prepare?
In undergrad there was a lot of volunteering, a lot of observations. I was involved with some research [and focused on] getting a lot of good grades. Pretty much anything and everything I could do, I was trying to do.
Was there anything specific that you thought was the key to help you become a strong applicant?
I always wonder what it is that got me in—you hear stories of people who have perfect GPAs and they don’t get in, so there’s no formula and no one thing specifically. I can guess that having a strong letter of rec [helped].
Did you take time off after undergrad?
I graduated early, so I had a semester off before I started in the fall for grad school.
What did you do during that time?
I traveled. I went to Asia—Japan, Hong Kong, Macao. I definitely enjoyed myself and had fun.
What would you tell someone who’s considering San Diego State for graduate school and wondering if it’s the right school for them?
I guess it’s what you’re prioritizing—if you need to be near family or if you really value getting through school in a really gorgeous place. There’s a lot of good beer and the weather is fantastic, but I think it’s really important to have community around you. Your cohort, they know what you’re going through … [so it’s important for someone to] befriend their classmates. It’s easier to have people around you to help you get through it.
What do you wish someone had told you about the Speech-Language Pathology program before you started?
Some of us really want to have a black-and-white system of doing things, but [the reality is] that each client—each disorder—is very unique and their therapy’s gonna look different. Some of us just want someone to tell us the answer, but there isn’t [a textbook]...and we’re like, I don’t know what I’m doing, help me.
We have to get used to this feeling of not knowing or figuring out the answer. You will figure it out and it’s gonna be okay. Use the resources you have, but it’ll look very different from one client to the next.
What are your plans now?
I’m taking a break. I’m going to Cambodia for two months—volunteering—and I’m gonna come back and try to find a job in a medical setting in the LA area.
Would you say they tuition for the program was worth it?
Yes. I’m very blessed—I had a lot of help, with the university grant and I applied for other scholarships, so definitely worth it.
Did you mostly use scholarships and grants, did you take out loans too?
I didn’t have to take out any loans. I’m also from in-state, so everything was covered by scholarships and grants.
Was there anything you would change about the program or your experience?
I would have loved to have a lot more experience populations in different settings, but it’s hard to fit in two years in the schedule that we have.
If you could go back, would you still pick this program at San Diego State?
Yes. I can’t say what it would be like at another program, but I think it’s definitely shaped who I am and what kind of SLP I’m gonna be.