BABE #168: KRISTYN KENDRICK CULLEN, Speech-Language Pathologist
Kristyn’s office can be found in a compilation of her car, cafeterias, conference rooms, closets, and any other available space. While this might not be ideal for some, it’s the work she’s doing for the lives of her patients that’s making a big difference. As a speech-language pathologist, Kristyn is currently working in two schools and two clinics; her patients range from kindergarten students to adults, both with and without special needs. Her work takes patience, empathy, and genuine listening (a skill the world needs more of). In today’s interview, she shares the journey that led her to this work, why it means so much to her, and the boundaries she’s set to help her turn “off” and make time for herself.
Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
Current city: Jacksonville, Florida
Alma mater: University of Central Florida (Go Knights!)
Degree: M.A., Communication Sciences and Disorders
Very first job: I was babysitting for neighbors by middle school, but got my first payroll job bussing tables at the San Marco Deli at 15-years-old.
Hustle: Speech-Language Pathologist
Babe you admire and why?
I admire my mom and sisters. My mom has always worked hard and loved harder. She is kind and determined and honest and hilarious. She and my dad raised the three of us daughters to be independent and passionate women. My older sister, Ashlyn, recently decided to take on a new career path and I love her fearlessness and determination, even when making changes requires bold and unknown steps. My little sister, Caitlyn, just graduated as a physician assistant and I love her drive to make a difference.
How do you spend your free time?
Binge-watching The Office or Parks and Rec, snuggling my adorably neurotic pup, biking on the beach, drinking coffee and eating. It’s my favorite kind of free time when Dale (my husband) and I get to do those in rare time off together.
Favorite fictional female character?
Leslie Knope. I love her awkwardness, feminism and Type-A ways.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
All the desserts. I’m not sure if that counts as a “meal,” but I wouldn’t want to waste my last bites on protein and greens. I’d go for chocolate, cookies, brownies, macaroons, donuts, cake, cupcakes, ice cream—I think you get the idea.
What is something you want to learn or master?
Since acquiring a beautiful singing voice seems unlikely at this stage in life, I’d like to work on hand-lettering. I find it therapeutic and would love to actually do it well.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Ellen DeGeneres. She’s just a beautiful human, inside and out.
What’s something most don't know about you?
I went to Halloween Horror Nights when I was in college and got so scared that I peed my pants. However, I’m not sure that information is pertinent to my career path.
Tell us about your hustle, providing an overview of your job and roles.
Speech-language pathology is a huge field in which we diagnose and treat communication disorders. “Speech” refers to the way specific sounds are produced, fluency (stuttering) and voice. “Language” refers to the way we comprehend and express ourselves. As a speech-language pathologist (SLP), you can work in schools, homes, clinics, hospitals or skilled nursing facilities, and clients vary from just-born to end-of-life. We treat everything from feeding and swallowing, to voice, to articulation, to language, to cognitive, to fluency, to social skills. I am a contract employee, which means I work through a wonderful company that places me at several locations. This year, I’m outsourced to two schools and two clinics, working mainly with pediatrics. In schools, I have a caseload of kindergarten to adult students with and without special needs. I pull students from classes in small groups to work on their skills and do a whole lot of paperwork and meetings during any in-between time. In clinics, I work one-to-one with little ones learning first words, up to adults working on techniques for stuttering.
What does your typical workday look like?
I’d love to say my office space is the pretty desk my sweet husband made for me, but the truth is my “office” is usually the trunk of my car. I split my time traveling between my schools in the morning and clinics in the afternoons. The majority of my sessions are 30 minutes, back-to-back. I work wherever the schools have room for me, which might be closets, cafeterias or conference rooms. I crawl on the floor with my younger kids doing play-based therapy, mix worksheets and drill practice with games for my students and spend some time counseling with my adults. I’ve learned (and am still learning) flexibility. I’ve also learned to swallow a lot of pride and take the day in strides. There are moments to teach and there are moments to listen. I certainly don’t have the balancing act of the job mastered, but I’d like to think I’m gaining patience and understanding with each day.
What inspired you to choose speech pathology as a career path?
I volunteered as a counselor in high school at Smile Camp, a week-long summer day camp for children with special needs. After that first day, I fell in love. There’s so much opportunity to learn from people who think uniquely, love unconditionally, are genuine and are different—not less. I spent the next couple of years working in different settings with children with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. That population, combined with my love for face-to-face communication, led me to become an SLP.
How do you establish relationships and maintain effective communication with patients and caretakers?
I find people respond well to genuine care, honesty and a listening ear. I’ve always genuinely cared for my patients and try to love people well. Despite that, I’ve had to learn how to honestly voice concerns and teach parents effectively. Moreover, I’ve found that people always need to be heard, even if they’re coming to us to learn to communicate.
How do you assess success with a new patient?
I think success should be measured both objectively and subjectively with any patient. I personally prefer the subjective, personal part. It might be a patient requesting with just one word instead of having a tantrum. It might be a mom telling me they sat by their child’s door the night before to listen to them babbling for the first time. It might be overhearing a student using correct sounds while they are having a conversation with their friends. It might be a kid getting only a 10 percent on paper, but using their language strategies and actually trying. The beauty of “success” is that it is completely individual.
How do you make time for yourself after hours?
When I’m at work, I have to be “on” the whole time I’m there. I have to be engaged, talkative, knowledgeable and encouraging for hours straight. On top of that, I used to bring home work daily to complete on the couch at night and on the weekends when my husband worked. I’m worn out by the time I get home and, to be honest, my work is much less efficient and meaningful at the end of a long day. Words are harder to come up with and conversation is less personal when I constantly merge work with life. This year, I’ve set boundaries for myself like never before, and giiiiirl, it’s so much healthier. Learning how to say “no” is a sucky life lesson for people-pleasers, but it’s good for you. I can’t say I never work when I’m off, but I can say I’m much happier by seeking a balance to also take care of myself.
What’s been your biggest career milestone?
Getting my first official big-kid job out of grad school. There’s something special about someone else seeing your worth before you even do.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience?
Speech-language pathology is a female-dominated world. I’ve been lucky enough not to be underestimated by my gender in this field (more often, I’m underestimated for looking so young), but I do think it’s important to ensure women receive equal job and salary opportunities.
How does technology affect your job?
In my opinion, obsession with technology has created a huge problem for many children in acquiring social and language skills. I won’t get on my soapbox for this one, but I will say it’s greatly impacted the needs in our field. Children need to learn to play with other children (not just a screen) and how to have an imagination. On the other end of the spectrum, advances in technology have created amazing opportunities for people to have unique voices through assistive communication devices. That side of technology, I’m all for.
What’s your biggest strength in your role?
Empathy. I believe you can always learn from pursuing understanding.
What’s the skill you most need to improve?
Creativity, especially in the moment. I’m always searching for new ways to keep my patients engaged and interested.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
Temple Grandin. While she’s not technically in the field of speech and language, she’s a brilliant professor/inventor/author/spokeswoman who has autism. She openly discusses her strengths and obstacles, advocates for others and pushes for understanding of people being “different, not less.”
What motivates and inspires you?
Between laughter, getting a macaroni necklace or lopsided heart picture as a gift, moments of progress and students telling me they learned something or had fun, little moments keep me driven as a therapist. The awesome tribe of hard-working people around me keep me inspired.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Know that you deserve to find a job that brings you joy. You are allowed to be passionate about your passions. You should use your voice to stand up for others and what you know is right. Give yourself grace. You just might make mistakes, so embrace and grow from imperfection. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, which makes you beautiful. Remember that inward beauty will always outshine physical appearance. The most important thing we can do is to love people well. You don’t have to agree with everyone else’s point of view, but condemnation and judgement will lead to nowhere. I promise you will never regret being kind and compassionate.
P.S., Stay weird.
Connect with Kristyn:
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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