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Speech language researcher Sonja Pruitt-Lord was nominated by her students for the CSU Chancellor's Faculty Leadership and Innovation award. Video by: Padma Nagappan
 


CSU Honors Speech Language Disorders Innovator

Sonja Pruitt-Lord was nominated by her students for the Chancellor's award for leadership and innovation.
By Padma Nagappan
 

“I’ve always wanted to open as many doors as possible for others.”

In her student days, Sonja Pruitt-Lord embraced leadership roles and was lucky to find mentors who changed her life’s trajectory. Now, as a professor at San Diego State University, she aims to give back by providing research opportunities in her lab and mentoring key student organizations in her field.

Her Child Language Development, Disorders, and Disparities research lab has an unprecedented 60 student researchers, and together they’re making a significant impact in the San Diego community by working with preschool children with language disorders. They range from undergraduates to post-doctoral researchers, and work daily in Rosa Parks Elementary School in City Heights, rotating between their own classes and research in preschool classrooms. 

“So many people supported me and opened these doors for me, so I’ve always wanted to open as many doors as possible for others,” Pruitt-Lord said. “I’ve learned over time that students can do things better than me, and I can give them teachable moments by giving them the freedom to explore. My students exceed my expectations every day.”

When her students asked her to help them start chapters of national student organizations, she promptly agreed. So Pruitt-Lord is also chapter advisor for the National Student Speech, Language, and Hearing Association and Women Empowered, and has helped guide them in leadership roles and mentored them as they explored their potential. 

Unbeknown to her, students nominated her for the California State University Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award, given to select faculty by the CSU Chancellor’s Office for “exemplary achievements and contributions to student success.’’ The nomination was supported by Tracy Love, director of SDSU’s School of Speech Language and Hearing Sciences (SLHS). 

“I aim to educate the whole student,” Pruitt-Lord said. “I value the energy and creativity of students and seek opportunities to support their intellectual and personal development through classroom instruction, leadership, research, and professional experiences.”

Pruitt-Lord’s research focuses on improving current methods of assessment for children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to prevent misdiagnosis of language disorders, and reduce health and educational disparities. She and her students aim to equip families, students, educators, community agencies, and policy makers with the tools needed to facilitate children’s language and cognitive development.

As an educator, she continually seeks ways to improve retaining students from diverse backgrounds in the field, and has partnered with colleagues from other campuses to present educational practices developed  to increase diversity in graduate programs.

How mentors shaped her life

Pruitt-Lord’s family is from Tangier, a small island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia, where residents speak a unique dialect of the English language that she still retains traces of, despite leaving  as a child. She remembers the freedom to roam freely on the island, which had very few cars and hence no fear of traffic.

The island’s main livelihood was crabbing, and Pruitt-Lord recalls “sitting on a skiff with my grandma and my great-aunt…with a net on a pole”.

She moved to New Orleans where she did her schooling and went to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, initially for a degree in chemical engineering.  A chance conversation with a friend convinced her to reconsider her options and when she began exploring speech and language pathology, an associate dean provided valuable career counseling and put her on the path to graduate school and research in the field. Others played a role too. 

“When I wrote my final grad school research paper, my professor asked me - if she funds this research will I do it,” she recalled. “I said yes, and that’s how I got into the field and into teaching. They opened doors I didn’t even know existed.”
  
Then came Hurricane Katrina, changing life for many in the region. Later that year, Pruitt-Lord was part of an LSU contingent attending the American Speech Language and Hearing Association conference in San Diego. She came across a job posting from SDSU, another turning point in her life.

“I looked around sunny San Diego, thought about my waterlogged town, and decided to apply. I was inspired by the faculty’s commitment to research and clinical education and truly liked them as people I met, and here we are,” she said. She joined SDSU in 2006 and was made full professor in May 2019. 

Recent milestones

It’s been a big year in many ways. She was also just promoted to associate dean in the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS), where she will oversee academic affairs. Pruitt-Lord and her colleagues currently have grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, and local community agencies to support their work.

“Dr. Pruitt-Lord is dedicated to developing thoughtful leaders through the experiences she creates for students in her classes, research lab, and student organizations—and I’m delighted to see it recognized with this prestigious award,” SDSU President Adela de la Torre said. “Dr. Pruitt-Lord's enthusiasm and commitment to create many opportunities for SDSU students is truly exemplary.”

CHHS Dean Steven Hooker praised her as a teacher and leader. 

“Her career and accomplishments are extraordinary. Whatever she is involved with, students always come first,” Hooker said. “She is what I would call a master teacher, in that she integrates innovative educational and growth-promoting opportunities for students in the classroom, in her research, and in community outreach activities. She is truly a leader in her field and most deserving of the award she is receiving.”  

SLHS director Love said “her passion for student development and innovative approaches to the field is simply extraordinary.”