Editor’s Note: Despite the necessary adjustment to virtual instruction for part of this semester, more than 6,000 talented Fresno State students will earn their degrees in May and move on to become the next generation of leaders in the Central Valley and beyond. While every hardworking graduate deserves to be recognized, for the rest of the semester we will be sharing the inspiring stories of graduates like this one who have achieved at the highest levels or have overcome remarkable challenges. As University President Joseph I. Castro previously announced, the University looks forward to celebrating all of its deserving graduates at an in-person ceremony at a later date when it is deemed safe to do so.
Imagine knowing exactly what to say, but not being able to get the words out clearly or concisely. This disfluency in speech is called stuttering — a communication disorder that affects flow of speech for nearly 3 million children and adults in the U.S.
For Jezraiah Cabasa, it is something she’s lived with her whole life.
Growing up, she said it caused her to feel shame and frustration, and over time she allowed these feelings to hinder her ability to seek speech therapy. It wasn’t until she met a speech-language pathologist in high school that her perception changed for the better. Through that experience, Cabasa realized she could turn her own speech impediment into something quite powerful.
This week, she will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in communicative sciences and deaf studies, with an emphasis in speech-language pathology. She also holds the distinction of being the Undergraduate Dean’s Medalist for the College of Health and Human Services — the highest honor given to an undergraduate student.
Cabasa fondly remembers meeting speech-language pathologist Heather Wilson in high school. Up until that point, Cabasa had felt isolated and silenced by her stutter, but Wilson gave her the strength to see past her disorder.
“I thought I could make my stuttering go away if I just ignored it or hid it,” Cabasa said. “When I realized in high school that this wasn’t something that I could grow out of, I was ready to reach out for help. Heather taught me to love my voice, even if I spoke differently than others. She looked beyond my communicative disorder and gave me hope and encouragement to do things I didn’t think I was capable of. She changed my life.”
Now the Visalia native hopes to one day give her clients the same hope and dignity once given to her by Wilson. Over the years, her once shameful feelings of her speech disorders have been replaced with fascination and a yearning to know more about it.
For Cabasa, it’s a unique situation, but one that she takes full advantage of. During her academic journey, she had the opportunity to shadow two licensed speech-language pathologists at Visalia’s Kaweah Delta Medical Center in the acute therapy and outpatient rehabilitation settings. In those moments, she reflected back on her own experiences.
“I met with adult patients who felt embarrassed that they could not keep food in their mouths or that their speech was slurred from injuries, and it taught me the importance of treating patients with dignity,” Cabasa said.
Wanting to expand her knowledge and cultural competence in the field, Cabasa went a step further and earned her certificate in Conversational American Sign Language. Earlier this semester, she worked as a speech aide at Garfield Elementary School in Clovis, and enjoyed the opportunity to not only teach signing skills to young students, but to learn about deaf culture at the same time.
Her servant nature took her nearly 3,000 miles away to Guatemala in 2018 and 2019, volunteering her summers at a special education school site. The experience affirmed her faith and her desire to be in a profession that serves others.
“Having the opportunity to volunteer in Guatemala gave me so much joy,” Cabasa said. “I knew in my heart that serving people with special needs was something that God made for me. Years of confusion, frustration and struggle were redeemed through my work and passion for this field. I’m excited to continue serving through my career.”
Cabasa’s commitment to service was heightened during her college years as a Smittcamp Family Honors College Scholar and a member of the College of Health and Human Services’ Honors Program. Both programs modeled service and compassion for the community.
In addition to a bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology and her certificate in Conversational American Sign Language, Cabasa will also earn a minor in music. Her long term goal is to combine all three of her passions into something impactful.
“Music has been a big part of my life since I started piano lessons in first grade. For me, playing piano and violin were ways that I could connect with people and express myself with confidence, even if I struggled to do that through speaking,” Cabasa said. “I think that music has a lot in common with speech and language, and I’m excited to one day contribute to research that explores these connections.”
As Cabasa looks ahead, she doesn’t plan to go too far. She is returning to Fresno State in the fall to begin work in the speech-language pathology graduate program. After obtaining her master’s degree, Cabasa aspires to work as a school-based speech-language pathologist. In time, Cabasa also plans to pursue a doctoral degree in the same field with hopes of one day teaching at the college level.
“Jezraiah is an extraordinary person,” said Dr. Brooke Findley, assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Deaf Studies. “Her lived experiences as a person who stutters allows her to bring a valued perspective to the field of speech-language pathology, and I eagerly anticipate the meaningful contributions she will make to our field.”