Student Spotlight: Future SLP Supports Son’s Paralympic Dreams

We sat down with Jayna Miller, a student in the online Speech@NYU program offered through NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders. This year, Jayna moved across the country to help her son turn his Paralympic table tennis dreams into reality — all while working toward her master’s in speech-language pathology.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I published a children’s book several years ago and believed that writing and illustrating books would unquestionably turn into a career. However, when I had my first son, Andrew, my focus turned to his medical needs. He was born with a rare — and usually lethal — type of dwarfism called Campomelic Dysplasia. We were told not to expect him to live more than a few hours, but he showed us that he had different plans. Even though his life has been punctuated by surgery (he has had more than thirty orthopedic and neurosurgeries since birth) he has refused to allow it to handicap him. Recently, we relocated to California from Ohio so that Andrew could pursue his dream of qualifying for the Paralympics in table tennis. He now trains with the US Paralympic table tennis coach, competes in tournaments across Europe and South America, and plans to attend law school someday.

Jayna and Andrew together.
Jayna and Andrew at the Gold Meets Golden Party, an annual event that brings together celebrities and athletes before the Golden Globes.

What was it like relocating across the country while continuing your studies?

It was challenging. We decided rather quickly to move forward with this about a year ago when Andrew had a big leg surgery that didn’t go well and he wasn’t going to be able to walk anymore. I felt like I had to do something to really show him that he could still do amazing things. So we decided to come out here so he could train with one of the US Paralympic table tennis coaches.

Andrew has training about six days a week twice a day now. I’ve learned to fit in school work and studying around his schedule. I’ll get up early if I need to, take him to practice, come back home, do more school work, take him back to practice, and sometimes work late if I need to. There were adjustments, but seeing Andrew so happy — seeing him be able to pursue his dream — has definitely made this worthwhile.

Good luck training, Andrew! How did he get started playing table tennis?

Growing up, I really tried to keep Andrew’s focus on things that were positive and activities that he could do. When he was 12, I bought a ping pong table for Christmas. My other son is a competitive tennis player, and I thought, “This is something that both of the boys can do together.” Andrew immediately took to it.

After a couple of years, someone suggested that he enter a local tournament. He did, and he was beating grown men! We found a coach in Columbus who could give him a few lessons and he started winning more tournaments and getting these huge trophies.

Andrew standing near his many table tennis trophies.
Andrew and his table tennis trophies.

Then someone suggested we think about Paralympic table tennis. We took Andrew to a tournament in Las Vegas. He was playing and the national US Paralympic National Team Coach for table tennis walked by. She introduced herself and said she thought Andrew had a lot of potential. They started having weekly Skype lessons until we moved to San Diego.

Andrew has since won his first big international table tennis match. He really wants to get to the Paralympics in Tokyo next year — he’s so motivated right now.

Can you tell me about what sparked your interest in pursuing speech-language pathology? Why now?

I was always interested in language when I was younger. But I didn’t really know about speech-language pathology until I had Andrew. He was born with a cleft of the soft palate, so we started working with SLPs probably day eight of his life. Later we were told that he was severe to profoundly deaf and that he would eventually be completely deaf. We found a school in Ohio that specifically focuses on teaching deaf students how to speak, and within three years he went from using 100 percent sign language to being 100 percent oral. All the while, I was observing the power of SLP intervention and thinking, “It is amazing to watch your child go from not being able to communicate anything to reading stories, writing stories, and giving speeches.”

When I got divorced 8 years ago, the first thing that came to mind was “I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to be a speech pathologist.” I started applying to grad school and learned that NYU had an online program. I looked at on-campus programs, but at the time, my kids were finishing high school and I didn’t want to have to move away. NYU stood out because of its reputation and because the people who contacted me from the program were so friendly, supportive, and enthusiastic. They really seemed to want to help me get in.

What would you tell other people thinking about pursuing an online degree?

It takes a lot of dedication and resilience to make it as an adult online student– but it absolutely can be done. There were plenty of obstacles in my way, but I’m progressing toward my degree with the help of NYU’s amazing group of advisors. They’re making sure I have support — because life happens.

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