A master of speech-language pathology

Areej Alasseri

Meet the McGill PhD behind the launch of the first master’s program in speech-language pathology in the Persian Gulf. (Photo courtesy of Areej Alasseri)

By Philip Fine

Areej Alasseri, PhD’08, is pioneering the advanced study of speech-language pathology in her native Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, she oversaw the launch of a master’s program in speech-language pathology at Dar Al-Hekma University. It the first such program in the entire Persian Gulf region and one of twelve programs that she has introduced at the women’s university in her role as provost. She has also been instrumental in the development of a nation-wide clinical diploma in communication and swallowing disorders.

These efforts—and more—have earned Alaserri the Alumni Award of Merit from the McGill School of Communication Sciences & Disorders (SCSD) for the 2018 edition of the Medicine Alumni Global Awards.

Alasseri has been curious about language since she was a child struggling to learn English. Why, she wondered, could some people speak so easily while others struggle to put their thoughts together?

Her first brush with language adaptation came in Grade 4 when she found herself in a San Antonio, Texas, classroom after her family had moved to the US from Saudi Arabia. Her earlier lessons in English offered little preparation for the language she was hearing around her. Occasionally pulled out of class for extra help, she recognizes now as a speech pathologist the benefits of these “pullout sessions.” She also lived in Leavenworth, Kansas (her father was in the military), and then returned to Saudi Arabia in Grade 7, fluent in English but having lost three years of Arabic studies.

“Doesn’t she know how to speak?” a history teacher, who had singled her out, asked her class facetiously. A fellow student stood up and said “You know, teacher, you should see her in math and English. She’s the best in the class.”

That classroom experience would stay with her. The confidence she felt in her second language would propel her to study English at university, while her empathy for children struggling to navigate more than one language would lay the foundations for her research, teaching and administrative work.

As she pursued a degree in English, she felt little love for Shakespeare and Chaucer but was intrigued by the sound of the language and the structure of words. That led her to pursue a master’s in linguistics.

She worked part-time as a translator at a Riyadh hospital for its many international doctors. She enjoyed the work and felt the responsibility to accurately convey their messages and be clear in explaining procedures and medication to patients.

Alasseri’s family moved from Riyadh to Jeddah. In her new city, she answered an ad for a research assistant but the person she called knew nothing about it. Was she thinking of the Jeddah Institute for Speech and Hearing? “He thought I was an older woman looking for treatment for my child.” He gave her an unlisted number, which she called. She got an interview and was hired to translate materials.

The speech pathologists at the Institute would bring children into her office to try out their language skills. She was inspired. When she heard that the institute was enrolling its clinicians in a speech pathology master’s program out of the US, she made a pitch to her superiors for her to also enroll. They said yes.

“I just ate up the material,” she recalls of her time in the program. It was a turning point. “I fell in love with speech pathology. This was my purpose in life.”

Plans for a PhD followed. A friend who had studied in Montreal asked her to meet Marc Pell, MSc’93, PhD’97, now Director of the SCSD. She visited McGill and they talked about potential areas of study and she was accepted on the spot.

She arrived in September 2001. “If you remember, that was not a very good month.” One McGill prof came up to her and said: “This is going to be a very difficult period for you, but we’re here to support you.” She was touched by the gesture.

Today, she is back in Jeddah, where she lives with her husband, Mohamed, whom she met in Montreal.The university where she works continues to make progressive strides and is seeking permission to admit male graduate students. On the research front, she recently developed a program for mothers to give language stimulation activities at home to their children. She is also developing an Arabic assessment tool for aphasia, a language disorder associated with brain damage.

Alasseri has helped improve her profession’s standing in the Middle East while feeding her own love and curiosity for speech pathology. Her life’s journey, with language on board, continues.






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