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Walking the Talk

Maria Hinkson's career change to speech and language pathology had some initial doubters. She never wavered
Maria Hinkson’s career change to speech and language pathology had some initial doubters. She never wavered

When Maria Hinkson walks at TC’s commencement ceremonies this year, she will be carrying a lot of family hopes and dreams on her shoulders.

Hinkson, the youngest of six children, is the daughter of parents from Barbados who worked “all the time” when she was growing up. Both are ill now, so Hinkson, who will complete her studies in the fall but petitioned to participate in this spring’s ceremonies, is walking for them.

She’s walking for her 88-year-old grandmother, a former neonatal nurse and midwife who helped deliver not only Hinkson, but Hinkson’s two children as well. “She’s so proud because both my two cousins and me are all at Columbia,” Hinkson says.

She’s walking as the first member of her family to visit Africa – a trip she made through TC’s program in Speech & Language Pathology, which is seeding that field in countries where it hasn’t previously existed.
But perhaps most impressively of all, Hinkson, a career changer who had to buck the initial skepticism of family and friends, is walking for herself.

“I was an accountant for years,” she explains. “I loved working with numbers, but at a certain point, I burned out. My son had been born and suddenly the work didn’t seem so meaningful. I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”

The opportunity came when Hinkson’s son, then in pre-school, was diagnosed with speech delays. Through speaking with his therapist, a TC graduate, Hinkson decided to enter the field herself. First she had to take pre-requisite courses – at Brooklyn College, where her skills with statistics earned her a role in a faculty member’s research projects (and a byline on her published studies). Then she had to adjust to the demands of the program at TC.

“I had to retrain myself to do all the writing,” she says. “Basically, when you do assessments and make session plans, you write down every step. Other people had done that as undergraduates, but I hadn’t.”

Those challenges, coupled with being a wife and mother and caring for her parents, often seemed overwhelming. But Hinkson was inspired by her advisor, Cate Crowley – a former lawyer who had also sought a more meaningful career – and supported by Maria LaMadrid, Director of Academic Administration, and Yvonne Wallace, Administrative Assistant, in the Department of Biobehavioral Science.

“I had a lot going on, and Yvonne and my friends” -- Francesca Lormeus, Lissette Gonzalez and Dorothy Nolan – “helped take my mind off of things,” she says.

But the work itself has been the ultimate reward, particularly the trip to Ghana in 2009. Hinkson was smitten with the country, where she saw a village on stilts over a lake and found a people who seemed to be uncomplaining and attuned to helping one another. She was also deeply moved by the plight of children afflicted with cleft palate, whose parents often shut them away and whose facial deformities are typically left untreated until after internal surgery is completed “because otherwise the families wouldn’t come back.”

In New York City, where attitudes and resources are markedly different, Hinkson says that children who are non-native English speakers are nevertheless frequently misdiagnosed.

“So many children are incorrectly labeled with a language disorder, it tends to follow them throughout their academic schooling, when really there are just dialectical differences,” she says. “In Barbados, we speak an English Creole, as well – we speak very quickly, and you might not be able to follow. When I’m in other situations, I can ‘code switch’ and speak differently, but most kids don’t know how to do that. A lot of them fall through the cracks.”

Hinkson, who attended TC on a Department of Education Scholarship, hopes to change that once she finds a job in the city. It’s a tough market, but she’s not worried:

“I’ve got so many people hoping for me and praying for me, I know I’ll do fine.”

Published Tuesday, May. 17, 2011