'I can’t imagine a career more gratifying than speech therapy'

Claire Connell's career journey has taken her to Portland, Oregon

Claire Connell on becoming a  speech therapist in Portland, Oregon

Claire Connell on becoming a speech therapist in Portland, Oregon

 

Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. Here we speak to Claire Connell, a speech therapist in Portland, Oregon

When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?

I left Ireland for the United States in 1992 after winning a Morrison Visa during the first year it was offered. I had just finished a Master’s degree in history from University College Cork and my employment outlook in Ireland looked very bleak at that time. I had previously spent an enjoyable summer working in Montauk on Long Island just outside New York on a J1 visa. I was young and curious and I just thought it would be a grand adventure to emigrate to the States.

Have you done any training or studying in the United States?

I emigrated to Boston during a very rough recession in the US. I had a tough time settling in initially and I jumped around from job to job. Eventually, I decided I needed an American qualification in order to be taken seriously over here, so I obtained a degree in Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. I graduated around the turn of the millennium, so I was able to work my way into the IT field due to the Y2K staffing needs at that time.

I did some very lucrative computer programming work for several years, but ultimately became very dissatisfied with the IT field. It never felt like the most meaningful work and the 24-hour on-call expectations and/or long hours of most IT positions didn’t work well for me as a mother of a then young son. So, I went back to college again at Portland State University for a Master’s in Speech Therapy, or Speech Language Pathology as it is referred to over here. I’ve been very happy with this choice of career for almost a decade now, and I hope to stick with it until I retire.

Tell us about your career there?

I work in two elementary (primary) schools in the Portland suburbs, providing speech therapy services to a very wide range of students with varying levels of needs and disabilities. I provide therapy to students with speech sound disorders, language skills deficits, and social communication challenges such as autism. I also work with students who need augmentative communication devices to communicate, with students who stutter and/or those with voice disorders.

I firmly believe in making therapy fun, so I do a lot of play-based activities with my students when I can

What does your day-to-day work involve?

No two days are ever alike. I typically provide therapy in either small groups or individually, depending upon the needs of the students. I firmly believe in making therapy fun while being productive, so I do a lot of play-based activities with my students when I can. I run from eight to 13 speech therapy sessions with students during the day. After school, I typically have meetings with parents and teachers to discuss a student’s progress and/or speech needs. I manage to fit in a lot of student speech evaluations and paperwork around these activities.

Are there any particular challenges you face in your work?

The work can be emotionally draining. Some of my students have very complex social-emotional and/or medical needs that require a significant level of patience and persistence as a therapist. The workload in the schools can be very high. Despite the challenges, I can’t imagine another career that comes even close to providing the unique combination of gratification, collegiality, mental challenge and sheer fun involved in being a speech therapist. My students never fail to make me laugh every single day.

What is it like living in Portland in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on? What are the costs like?

Portland, sandwiched between Seattle and the Californian cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, is by far the most affordable major city on the West Coast. Housing costs are increasing rapidly lately however due to a recent influx of move-ins from all over the country. It is a very vibrant, liberal and progressive city that attracts a lot of young college graduates despite the fact that it has a weak economy relative to other cities on the West Coast.

Portland is known as a creative haven that attracts people who like coffee, microbrews and cannabis, and it has a great local music and arts scene. While the hipster reputation is well warranted, the vast majority of Portlanders are, in fact, typical, average, middle or working-class people and families who are very representative of many other American cities.

Portland is a compact city that is easier to navigate and less stressful than many bigger US cities, so I have found that people here tend to be more laid-back, friendlier and less status-driven than folks on the East Coast. Beaches and amazing scenic areas are all within a day’s driving distance from the city. Over the years, I have grown to love the many rainy days here in Portland knowing that we are always guaranteed a few months of absolutely perfect summer weather.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

Family and friends of course. Also, a random list of items that includes call-in radio shows, RTÉ news, Cadbury’s chocolates and the daily sight of fields full of cows. I also miss the Irish sense of humour, decency and the very informed level of daily conversation. And curry and chips! Portland is a foodie mecca, but nobody here seems to be able to replicate the offerings of the average, humble Irish chipper.

I also deeply miss the sense of history that is pervasive in Ireland. Portland is a relatively young city that really wasn’t much more than a crossroads a mere 100 years ago. I grew up in the shadows of 12th century Cahir Castle in Co Tipperary and only now that I’m so far away from it do I realise how much I took all of the amazing history and the tangible sense of place in Ireland for granted growing up.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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