Spring graduate Alayna Cassidy’s fascination with the brain, helping others with communication disorders, offers a bright future at 20 years old  

The science behind communication disorders fascinates Alayna Cassidy, and employing skills to help those who suffer from them moves her.

With excitement, Cassidy earned a bachelor’s in communication sciences and disorders and a minor in human development and family science from Georgia Southern University last week.
A 20-year-old graduate from Oglethorpe County, Georgia, who earned a year’s worth of college credits through her high school’s dual enrollment program, Cassidy wasn’t initially sure what she wanted to study. However, she did know how she wanted to feel in her chosen profession.

“I wanted to work with people, and I wanted to be able to love my job, and I wanted to be able to express myself and be who I wanted to be in my job,” Cassidy said.

Rifling through Georgia Southern’s catalog, communication sciences and disorders grabbed her attention, and she thought “It might be fun.”

Soon after, a family connection confirmed her hunch.

“I realized that my cousin was born with cerebral palsy and microcephaly and needed a speech therapist, which made my interest in speech expand even more,” said Cassidy. “I learned a lot about speech therapy through that, and I was like, ‘I love this.’ So that’s why I chose it. And then through volunteering, I learned to fully love everything about it. I’m so passionate about it.”

In her first year at Georgia Southern, Cassidy began volunteering at the Savannah Speech and Hearing Center. Two years later, she was the recipient of the organization’s 2023 Annie F. Oliver Volunteer of the Year Award for her commitment of more than 225 hours to volunteering for various organizations. The majority of those hours were dedicated to the group’s stroke and traumatic brain injury survivor support group; to Sound Start, their early intervention, auditory and verbal therapy program for children who are deaf or hard of hearing; to community hearing screenings; and to administrative work.

Cassidy loved playing games and doing art projects with stroke patients while learning how they moved through recovery. Many couldn’t speak for months and had to make the difficult decision to leave their homes to move in with family members.

“We sat and talked and sang and learned a lot about each other,” Cassidy said. “I loved the atmosphere. Once they had communication and then they didn’t, and how they struggled to realize that they can get it back, but then they do get it back. I loved watching them overcome that kind of situation.”
Her patients’ experiences became a source of personal inspiration for her, as she dealt with her grandmother’s breast cancer diagnosis and her parents’ divorce.

“Seeing them overcoming a lot of those obstacles touched my heart very sincerely,” she shared. “I saw them overcome things, so I know that I can, too. They give me the strength to move on with life after a lot of things have happened. Learning that they can overcome those kinds of things has given me motivation and courage to do anything that I want to.”

As Cassidy spent more time at the center, she became increasingly fascinated with the inner workings of the brain. Samantha McDaniel, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, who teaches a neurogenic communications disorders class on the Armstrong Campus in Savannah, ignited her intrigue.

“She had a huge impact on me because she taught me a lot about the older population and the brain,” said Cassidy. “She was so passionate about it that she changed my whole perspective on how to look at the older population. She also had such great research. I truly enjoyed her class and everything that she embodies. And really, all of my professors have had a huge impact on me, and have made me more passionate about it.”

In her three years on the Armstrong Campus, Cassidy also served as vice president of the Student Academy of Audiology and the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association, which honored Cassidy with its Active Citizenship Award earlier this year. In addition, she was a Southern Ambassador, a sexual assault student educator and a math tutor.

In the fall, she’ll begin Georgia Southern’s Master of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders and will continue volunteering.

Her family is “super proud” of her and ecstatic for her accomplishments and ever-bright future.
Cassidy’s hope is to practice in a hospital setting with survivors of stroke or traumatic brain injury, and those with dementia and other neurogenic communication disorders. She is also considering teaching so that she may inspire rising practitioners, just as she was in Georgia Southern’s classrooms.

“To have that same impact on students and get them to be the best speech-language pathologists that they could be, would be amazing,” said Cassidy. “I also see myself with a family, practicing speech pathology and just being genuinely happy. All I really wanted ever in life is to be happy.”

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