by Lisa Birzen '03
Jennifer (Carroll) Zurcher ’94 can say what few others can: that she has stayed true to her “first love.”
“If you love something so much, you will never let it leave your life,” Zurcher reassures recent graduates starting out on their career path and older alumni looking to change direction.
Zurcher’s “first love” was English and she turned her love of reading into an English major and, subsequently, her degree into a fulfilling and rewarding career focused on teaching language.
Being a “voracious reader from the time I learned to read,” Zurcher, a Malden, Massachusetts native, decided early on in high school to become an English major in college. “I felt lucky to take something I loved and have to do it!” she says of her decision.
Despite her academic satisfaction, she admits to “having a hard time adjusting to life at Dartmouth as a freshman.” In the end, however, she loved both her time and experience. During her senior year, having “enough experience at Dartmouth to be helpful,” she workedas an Undergraduate Advisor (UGA) to freshmen students on her hall. The experience would encourage her to help others on a grander scale later in life.
Following graduation, Zurcher explored her interest in higher education administration and worked for the next two years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As the meeting planner for the school’s Board of Trustees, she organized meetings for the auditing subcommittees for the school’s various departments.
“It was a good way to see administration,” she says, but “at the end of the day, I wasn’t helping anybody; I was catering to very wealthy people.”
Yearning to “do something more humanitarian,” Zurcher left her job and, knowing that she specifically did not want to become an English teacher, focused on finding ways to apply her interest for the English language outside of the traditional academic environment.
An experience Zurcher had had as a junior at Dartmouth played a crucial role at this career crossroads. Once, while visiting her older sister who teaches children of severe special needs, Zurcher observed a speech therapist at work and immediately saw speech therapy as “an opportunity to be creative, still in the academic sense but not locked in a classroom.”
“The opportunity to make what you do fun and functional” had greatly appealed to Zurcher and she now began to consider devoting herself to this area of need.
To fulfill prerequisite coursework and obtain a Master’s degree, she enrolled at Boston University where the structure of the program exposed her to the many different facets of speech therapy.
As part of her course requirements, she worked with adults who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and strokes; spent time with elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease and helped eighteen-month old infants develop their language skills.
This program also allowed Zurcher to simultaneously earn a teaching certificate, enabling her to work at public schools later on in her career.
Upon completion of her degree, she worked at “helping people regain higher level cognitive ability” after losing memory and language skills, resulting from car crashes, seizures, drug over-dose, etc.
During this time, however, Medicaid changed its rules on reimbursement, she explains, and “people who qualified before, now no longer qualified and those who did still qualify, qualified a lot less.”
As a result, Zurcher’s client schedule intensified to sixteen people a day with minimum time to spend on each visit. She felt herself “becoming a factory: constantly running from one patient to the next.” She worked “long days where I wasn’t feeling that I was making the difference I thought I could.”
Previously, speech therapists could offer functional therapy, guiding clients through everyday situations to prepare them for real-life scenarios, such as going to the store and taking a bus. Nowadays, she missed this approach and “the job had become less satisfying than it used to be,” she says.
Having “experienced a taste of all the little aspects of speech therapy,” while at graduate school, however, she was quickly able to readjust her concentration when the area of adult therapy proved to no longer be satisfying.
She redirected her focus to children and in 1999 began working for the Early Intervention Agency in Lowell, MA, providing home-based services to children less than three years of age. In 2001, she switched to working full-time at the public school system in Methuen, MA, helping children over the age of three develop their language needs in the classroom, remaining involved with Early Intervention on a part-time basis until giving it up in 2004 when she had her daughter.
Zurcher explains that every state has an Early Intervention Program in place but “how the services are delivered depends on the state.” In Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Public Health covers those Early Intervention costs that aren’t covered by insurance.
State-approved assessment tools determine a young child’s need and, depending on the results, a combination of speech, occupational or physical therapists as well as teachers or social workers are assigned to work with the child at home.
For a child who is over three years, the financial responsibility shifts to the schools who are obligated to provide speech therapy to eligible students.
For the past six years, her main focus has been children with autism and her work involves a “wide range of disabilities: developing speech sounds to learning disabilities.” She works with autistic students to cover functionality as it applies to the classroom setting and the most common student activities: waiting their turn, communicating their needs and interacting with fellow classmates.
Late last year, a “new challenge walked through the door”: a little boy with cerebral palsy whose ability to develop communication skills strongly depends on a technique called assistive technology, such as computerized voice-output devices.
She half-seriously pondered a genetic predisposition to her desire to help others because two of her four siblings – two older sisters – are in the teaching and therapy professions as well.
When choosing a career path, Zurcher admits, “I always needed to find something where I was helping. It was always missing for me in other fields.” “I preferred interaction with other human beings rather than with papers and computers.”
Whereas she describes her work at MIT as “following the same pattern,” speech therapy is a “creative and challenging environment where you never stop learning.” “It’s an area where you will never be bored,” she describes. Children with similar diagnoses nonetheless present different sets of unique strengths and challenges to therapists. In essence, “you never see the same child twice.”
She encourages students to worry less about choosing their first job out of college. “My first two years out was a time to figure out what I wanted to do. I worked at MIT because it was an area of interest, not because I wanted it as my career.”
During that time, she saved as much money as she could, thinking ahead to her graduate school plans, and advises others considering a higher degree to remember this future financial responsibility as well.
For others considering a similar line of graduate work, Zurcher cautions that “most speech therapy graduate programs are not a part-time structure; they are full-time commitments.”
Vowing earlier in life “to be a professional student,” after finishing graduate school, Zurcher surprised herself by feeling: “I’ve definitely had enough formal schooling for a while. I actually felt like I’m done.”
Although the “English major in me became my hobby rather than my profession,” Zurcher places great emphasis in her current work on the skills she mastered as an English major.
She is able to transfer her writing skills, developed while writing analytical and creative papers for classes, to clinical reports she puts together today.
In fact, her work now and her college studies fit well together, because, “it all comes back to words.” Whereas as a student, she was “reading language and writing language,” these days she “continues to approach language but at a basic sense,” assisting others in “creating language.”
Jennifer Zurcher stayed true to her love of English and now imparts it to others; a gift, that’s too powerful for words.
Last Updated: 6/21/12