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Florida State University’s Dr. Snowden: Putting the “Care” Back in “Hearing Healthcare”

It’s not every day that you meet somebody who makes a living doing exactly what they were born to do. Selena Snowden, Au.D., is one of those people. As the Director of Audiology Services at Florida State University’s Hearing and Speech Clinic, she spends half her time helping people hear well and the other half teaching audiology and speech-language pathology students how to do the same. More specifically, Selena is teaching the next generation of hearing healthcare professionals the importance of compassion in their clinical work. And she leads by example -- whether abroad or at home, in a clinic or classroom, Selena is committed to providing underserved populations greater access to hearing healthcare while also introducing audiology students to these same populations so that they’re able to provide them a higher level of care. Fortunately, she found time to talk to us about her mission trips to Guatemala, her outreach work with the Special Olympics, the wisdom she hopes to impart on her students, and why she loves seeing a dirty earmold.

“The humanitarian part for the students is very important because they realize compassion on a different level…I think it teaches them that they’re not just treating a hearing or speech disorder—they’re giving these people a better quality of life.”
Selena B. Snowden, Au.D.

Q&A with Selena B. Snowden, Au.D., Director of Audiology Services

1Tell us a little about the undergrad and graduate programs that FSU offers and what the breakdown of students is like within the School of Communication Science & Disorders.
We have approximately 180 undergraduate dual major audiology/speech pathology students. Then there are approximately 65 graduate students on-campus which are strictly speech pathology because we don’t have a graduate program for audiology. FSU also has a distance learning graduate program and that has so many students that I don't even know the numbers.
2What’s the schedule like at the clinic given that it offers comprehensive speech-language and audiology services for all ages while also serving as a teaching lab for graduate students?
The clinic sees somewhere around 40 to 50 patients a week. There’s about 12 employees total, including three audiologists and five speech pathologists. Typically, we split teaching duties between providers. We just juggle it on a week-by-week basis. I put in my availability for patients for the whole semester and we do the best we can.
3Tell more about what you do as the clinic’s Director of Audiology Services as well as a member of the teaching faculty.
Every semester I teach Measurement and Management of the Hearing Impaired which is an in-class and clinical course for speech-language pathology graduate students. Every spring semester I also teach Introduction to Audiology for undergraduate students. I’m also the advisor for FSU's chapter of the Student Academy of Audiology and I do all of the billing, reconciliation, and insurance stuff for the clinic with one of the other audiologists. I’m our new HIPAA officer too.
4Having worked in an ENT clinic for several years before you started at Florida State, was it at all difficult transitioning to a teaching/institutional role?
No, not for me. I had never formally taught before, but I come from a long line of teachers—my parents, brother, sister, sister-in-law, and my husband's parents are all in education. Honestly, I think it was just kind of in my blood. And I had always planned to maybe end up at a university or clinic where I could supervise audiology students. So, it was a natural transition.
5Tell us about the hearing aid mission trips you organize every year to Guatemala with FSU students.
We’ve been doing service trips each spring since I started the project six years ago. Our Student Academy of Audiology is now the sponsor for it, meaning that you must be in the Academy to apply for the program, or at least get first pick. At the end of every spring semester, I take applications from students then decide how large of a team I can take which varies depending on how many donations I think I can get and how many professionals I have traveling with me to help with the students. We work with an organization called Porch de Salomon. They have a hotel and a restaurant that they run and that's where we stay. They set up the clinics and everything else for us so when we get there, we’re ready to rock and roll. The local governments are responsible for getting the word out into the villages and then getting the information for who's responsible for coming what day.
6How many patients do you typically treat on each trip?
We usually do three or four days of hearing clinics and see about 250 people. The first day, we only see return patients—between 50-80 people. We actually keep all their records and compare their audiograms from the previous year, which I think makes us pretty unique with a lot of international outreach programs. I'll feel like there's real sustainability and follow-up which was important to me when we started the program. I didn't want to give somebody the gift of hearing for six months only for their device to break. It’s also heart-warming that so many of our devices come back every year. I love to see a dirty ear mold because you can tell it's been worn.
7How do you raise the money for these mission trips?
We do a lot of different fundraising events. It's a big community effort. We have raffles and things like ‘Share Nights’ where you can eat at your local restaurant and a certain percentage will go towards the program. We do a little bit of online sourcing, but we mainly reach out to community friends. I also ask the students to personally raise a couple hundred dollars to cover supplies. That's part of their commitment.
8All of the hearing aids are donated too, right?
Yes. ReSound donates a lot, but then we also have local audiologists that really help us. There’s one private practitioner in town who will let her patients know that they can donate their old devices to us if they’re looking to upgrade. Then we take those devices and refurbish them. If we can offer an in-kind donation credit to the patient we do or just a thank you note. Aside from hearing aids, we also try to bring donations and money for those in need of other medical care. And we do all of that through Porch de Salomon.
9What do you hope your students take away from these missions?
The humanitarian part for the students is very important because they realize compassion on a different level. And whether they ultimately go into speech pathology or audiology, they can eventually take that into their clinical practice. I think it teaches them that they’re not just treating a hearing or speech disorder—they’re giving these people a better quality of life. A lot of the people we see are in their eighties or nineties, so they’ve probably had hearing loss for a long time but have never had a hearing aid. So, to be able to give them that gift and see their appreciation, it’s just different than it is here in the U.S.
10Tell us about the outreach work you do with the Special Olympics and its Healthy Hearing program.
I’m a Clinical Director for Special Olympics of Florida and also a Regional Clinical Advisor for North America Special Olympics. Intellectual disabled adults and children are the most underserved population for medical needs. So, what we're trying to do through Healthy Hearing is minimize that health disparity by doing mass hearing screenings at local games throughout the state. And then at state games, we bring in audiology students so that we can train them. The idea is that if we, as a profession, can treat those patients and train students in that environment, then eventually that's going to trickle down. And in their everyday practice, they’ll have a better understanding of how to treat that population.

As a Regional Clinical Advisor, I also do trainings for audiologists, ENT physicians and speech pathologists from other states that are trying to get the Healthy Hearing program up and running in their state. Florida is one of the leaders for the program because we’re the only state that provides hearing aids to all of our intellectually disabled athletes free of charge if they don’t have healthcare or a plan that covers hearing. So, if an athlete four or five hours away from me has hearing loss, I reach out to audiologists in their area to find one willing to do a fitting and follow-up visit for free.
11What do you think is the biggest challenge that the next generation of hearing healthcare professionals face?
As an audiologist in her forties with three kids - two in college - who also works with college students all day, every day, I’d say the biggest challenge is the way we communicate right now. So much is through cellphones and technology that I wonder how it’s going to change the true field of communication disorders. And because some of our students don't have a lot of experience with face-to-face communication and interaction, I just can't help but wonder how that's going to impact clinical practice in the future.
12So how do you address that as a teacher?
Our audiology undergraduates have the opportunity to gain hands-on clinical experience which a lot of universities don't offer to undergrads. The goal is to make sure that when those students get to graduate school, it’s not the first time they’ve seen a patient. Hopefully, by then, they’ve already had enough exposure that those initial jitters are gone and they’re able to do more critical-thinking with their patients as opposed to just checking off boxes.
13What are some key pieces of advice that you give your students?
Life advice that I give to many people is: make sure you're happy with your job—it’s not always about the money. My second piece of advice is that it's okay to change your mind. There are so many different things within our field that you can do—other populations, other settings, business world, ENT, private practice. So, if you get burned out doing one thing, which happens to the best of us, there are still other things you can try. That's what's really awesome about audiology.