Big Rapids native picked to lead national org

SHARI BRAND ROBERTSON

BIG RAPIDS — As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, Shari Brand had a certain degree of adolescent rebellion in her spirit, which led her to reject the idea of becoming a speech language pathologist like her mother, although she found the profession interesting.

However, as a young student in the Western Michigan University pre-dentistry program, she found herself in a situation with a big hole in her class schedule and only one class to fill it with — a speech language class.

Forty years later, the Big Rapids native (now Shari Brand Robertson) has ascended to the top of her field, having recently been named president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), a professional group of almost 200,000 communications professionals across the nation.

“It must be in the genes,” Robertson said with a laugh Monday. “People ask me all the time, how did you get to this position? I tell them, ‘I’m no different from you. I’m just a farm kid from Michigan who saw opportunities and used the skills I learned as a speech language pathologist.’ It’s a huge honor to be representing this organization.”

Robertson, 60, was elected to the head of ASHA earlier this year, following an election of its membership. She recently retired from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she worked as a provost’s associate for academic programs and planning and professor of speech language pathology.

Who are the people Robertson represents? A speech language pathologist is a person who identifies, assesses and treats speech and language problems, including swallowing disorders. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids.

One of Robertson’s goals is to raise the profile of these professions and eliminate any outdated notion of what they may entail.

“We are coming close to the 100th anniversary of when ASHA was established. Back then, we worked a lot with fixing speech sound errors that children made, worked on stutters and helped people who had difficulty hearing. But our work has changed dramatically with the times,” she said.

“Now, we work with individuals who have difficulty swallowing and feeding. We work with adults who have had strokes and traumatic brain injury. My specialty actually deals with literacy development and language — helping parents learn how to read to their children. Our fields cover all aspects of communication, both understanding and expressing, and it’s very exciting to be a part of it.”

Robertson’s second major goal is to meet people in her field, face-to-face, to help them reach their own goals. It shouldn’t be hard to meet others — in the next year, she said, she’ll be traveling to far-off places like China, South Korea and Brazil to represent ASHA and help organizations similar to hers get on their feet.

“My favorite part of the job is to nurture our aspiring leaders and clinicians, helping people find the leader in themselves,” Robertson said. “We have some young professionals who are into blogging and other types of online things, and I get asked time and time again to give interviews so they can put it on their website. That’s a huge highlight for me — having the opportunity to make face-to-face contact is huge.”

ASHA is based in Rockville, Maryland, about 700 miles southeast of Big Rapids. But Robertson said she carries lessons with her from Mecosta County wherever she goes.

Robertson’s family moved to the area from Lansing, when she was in fifth grade. Her father, Jim Brand, worked as a farmer and a professor in the diesel and heavy equipment area of study at Ferris State University. Her mother, Merrelyn, worked as a speech language pathologist at what is now called the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District.

“I went to a one-room schoolhouse called Ely, on Chippewa Lake Road, before I went to the intermediate school, and then Big Rapids High,” Robertson said. “I remember my mom coming home from work and me asking her, ‘What do you do all day? It sounds like so much fun.'”

After initially doubting a career in the field, Robertson decided to become a communicator herself, and graduated with degrees in the field from Western and Central Michigan universities. She married a man from Saginaw, Tom, and moved to Wisconsin to pursue a doctorate. She worked as a speech language pathologist for 18 years in eastern Wisconsin before moving to Pennsylvania.

Robertson has passed on love of language to her children. Daughter Brianna Robertson works as an audiologist in Pennsylvania.

“It’s a wonderful, rewarding field to be a part of. I’m thrilled for the next chapter,” she said.

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Posted by Tim Rath

Tim is the Pioneer's associate editor. He also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Veterans pages. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at trath@pioneergroup.com.

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