Stuttering Silence in College

I’d be very interested to hear what others might have to say about this — particularly what you were feeling during your first weeks of college as someone who stutters.

I read this article a few days back about the death of Madison Holleran. I had a really long think about it afterward because parts of it really resonated with me.

When I was a senior in high school, things were very good, and I was really happy. By this time, my stuttering wasn’t bothering me too much — I had a strong support group, good grades, and a clear path to college.

When I entered Pitt in the fall of 1997, e-mail and the Internet were relatively new. AOL instant messenger was a thing, sure, but none of us were obsessed with checking our e-mail every five minutes. That being said, we were still connected to our friends at other colleges. Going home for a weekend or Thanksgiving was a pretty big deal since freshman year you could usually find everybody at home.

Those first few weeks were, at times, pretty dark. I remember distinctly thinking one day while walking back to my dorm that I had gone to too big of a school. I wanted to transfer. There’s the idea that you see about college on television and in movies — red brick dorms, people laughing and playing in the Quad (whatever that was), going to parties and meeting cute girls, and having a lively discussion in small classes.

Brochure? Yes. Reality? Not so much. And it was getting to me.

Of course the stuttering wasn’t helping much. There was no partying for me, nor engaging with professors in class (or in recitation, really, cause those were smaller). And my grades were just slowly drifting downward, which was also having a negative effect.

What did end up helping were two things — a few guys who I met on my floor, and the student newspaper that I had joined. I managed to make strong bonds with people who may have heard but didn’t care about my stuttering. I didn’t advertise or anything, but I wasn’t afraid to lean on them when things started getting bad.

If I had been more tuned in to my stuttering, I think I would have tried to join a group. That’s the advice that I would give to anybody who stutters and is going to college. You’re being thrown in with 20,000 other people, so even the fluent people probably think they’re alone, too.

I think we also need to try a lot harder to communicate. We hate doing it because of the stuttering, but you can’t be alone with 20,000 people, questioning your decisions and not feeling like you’re getting what you paid for and just let it all fester inside.

I understand that depression and suicide are completely different from stuttering. I get that. But my point is that there is a tendency for those of us who stutter to really hold everything in. And when there are a lot of huge changes in your life in a short timeframe, it’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t have the right outlet — and you have to be able to communicate to that outlet.

Stuttering at the Races Part 1

Missed a few days, but hey, still stuttering even though I might not have posted!

This past weekend (starting Thursday, really) there was the Bahrain Grand Prix — Formula One — over in Bahrain. I’ve been a fan of F1 for 20 years, and this was my first race … finally!

On Thursday they had an open paddock walk for about an hour. It was for three-day ticket holders. I took the camera, took a bunch of photos, and loved every minute of it. Not all the teams were out, and only a few drivers showed up, but hey, still worth it.

Friday was practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday the race.

Since everything was so well organized, there wasn’t a need to ask around for directions or information. And thus, not a lot of stuttering. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my stuttering the entire weekend. My explanation will come in two parts — today and tomorrow.

The first part is that I’ve got a degree in mechanical engineering. When I was in college, I was an F1 fan. I knew the deal — you had to start small and work your way up (F1 being at the peak). The internet was new in those days, but I managed to find a listing of “minor league” teams in the States. I think back in those days they had CART, IRL and then the smaller series where the talent was coming from.

I’m not sure if I e-mailed the guy, or just cold called him, but I remember distinctly talking to a team manager on the phone. He was out in California, and he said, yeah, sure, there’s something here, but you’d have to help do everything. I wasn’t a great communicator back then. So I didn’t talk about this opportunity with my parents — who could have supported me. Or friends who might be headed out there. I should have also called around to more teams — but again, more phone time.

Based on my success now at my current job (and having progressed through various roles) I think I would have done well in the racing industry. I think those of us who stutter probably have more regrets than most — fluent people make a decision just because; we make one because we can’t say what we want.

On the other hand, I did move to Saudi because my Stateside job at the time required a healthy amount of travel. And being on a racing team is mostly travel for the majority of the year. So who knows how that could have turned out.

It’s just something I was thinking about a lot as I watched the various mechanics working over the weekend.

The long road to stuttering acceptance

As I approach the one-year anniversary of this blog and opening up (almost) completely about my stutter, I thought I’d take a chance to talk more about how exactly I got to this point of acceptance.

This was a very, very long process. And I know it’s not the same for others who stutter. Even when I went to the NSA conference, I met people who stutter more and less than I do. Keep in mind that I graduated high school in 1997, so it was well before the Internet as we know it today.

However, this might at least offer some guidance to those still in school wondering if it’ll get better, or what can be done to make things better. And by “better,” I mean more comfortable, more tolerable, and less stressful on a day-to-day basis.

Elementary school – (Ages 7-11) I was aware that I stuttered, but didn’t understand its implications at all. Did speech therapy, but nobody gave me the big picture. Also, I was fluent during therapy, so that didn’t help. No mention on the homefront about my speech. (pretty much continues to present day, actually)

Junior high school – (11-15) My sixth grade teacher commended me at the end of the year about my accomplishments despite my stutter. This was the first time that a non-therapist recognized it and brought it up. I did more therapy in school, but I was usually fluent during those sessions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was also growing more comfortable and confident in my environment — and gaining friends who didn’t mind the stutter. This was cyclical — low comfort and confidence going into junior high, riding high on the way out. Going into high school, I was down low again, but managed to work back up by the time I graduated.

High School – (15-18) Definitely knew that I had a stutter, and finally met someone else who did as well. We were in some of the same classes together, and we even looked alike. He was a lot more open about it. Not at all covert. But he and I never talked about it, and I regret that. Through peer pressure, I became more involved in the performing arts (on a very, very small scale) and that did a lot of good for my confidence even though it scared the hell out of me at times. I didn’t stutter when I was on stage doing Who’s on First (two nights!) when I was a senior. I had a different therapist in high school, and she taught me about easy onsets and breathing. These are things that I still try to use today, and it’s made a huge difference.

College – (18-22) At this point I should say that I still wasn’t “thinking” about the long-term effects of stuttering. I didn’t know about job interviews, going to meetings, giving presentations and whatever else the corporate world had for me. My summer jobs had been retail and as a bank teller. Not a lot of talking, and it was easy to be covert. I thought that was normal. Since high school, I have not seen an SLP. During the college I do remember introducing myself to others at the student newspaper, stuttering-be-damned. Once that was done, it was easy to maintain those friendships. And as people came and went at the paper, it was easier for introductions. Academically, I did what was required but never bothered talking to professors or asking for help. It just wasn’t something I was used to.

First job – (22-25) I had problems during some of the interviews only because I didn’t know what to say. But after a while I became pretty decent at just bantering and smiling. That being said, I did get my first job through my dad’s connections, and once there, it was easy to be the young engineer who didn’t know anything. I got used to keeping my mouth shut and trying to absorb as much as possible. During the first five years out of college, I never gave my stutter any thought. And despite the Internet, I never bothered researching it or finding any help groups.

Subsequent jobs – (25-31) I can’t pinpoint an exact date, but I started reflecting a lot more about my stuttering and my life. This probably happened when I found out about the Pagoclone trial. And so I started to keep journals. I think the boredom of corporate travel — hotels and coffee shops helped a lot with this. I thought that I could put it all together into a book. Despite all the writing and thinking, I still didn’t reach out to anybody. The Pagoclone trial wasn’t through an SLP. Through writing and reflecting, I started to realize that my general policy of not-asking and not-talking was entirely stuttering-related.

Moving to Saudi – (31-36) I feel like things sort of “settled down” a lot more in my working and home life when we moved to Saudi. Before that, I was traveling a lot more, worried about general job security, saving whatever money I could, and raising a family. But in Saudi more things are taken care of, and I was able to sit down with my stuttering thoughts a lot more. I came here when I was 31. So that’s how long it took to really start looking around online and finding out more about stuttering.

I realized after a while that publishing a book wouldn’t be feasible. But I was reading a lot more blogs, so I decided that might be the best route. But the stuttering still held me back — in being overt. I was afraid of so many things — that were all imaginary. That if someone found out it might affect my job, what my friends or family might think, what having to talk more about it would do to my psyche. So not until I turned 35 last year did I go ahead with the site.

So what does this all mean? It’s a long journey. I never researched stuttering online because it was bothering me or holding me back (or so I thought). I only researched it because I wanted to share my journey with others. For the longest time I thought it was very personal, something that I should have to struggle with on my own. I’ve found out the opposite of course. I’m not alone, and a lot of other people are going through this.

I think for a long time I also didn’t research stuttering online because I didn’t want to admit to myself that I stuttered. That’s an absurd thing to say, but I think it’s true for the majority of covert stutterers. If I don’t learn about it, it doesn’t exist to me, and it won’t bother me [any more than it does]. Of course I’ve since learned that it’ll actually make you feel better knowing more. And it’s really fun to get together with other people who stutter and connect and tell stories.

I will also say that a lot of things came together at the right time. Working at the same company for a number of years gave me the confidence that stuttering more at work wouldn’t have any negative effect. Also being here gave me the financial means to start attending the NSA Conference regularly.

Do I wish I had come to this point earlier? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would have been ready for it. On the one hand, colleagues have always been good to me, so maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. What about during college or before that? That’s even harder to say — so I’ll go with “it’s complicated.” It’s that idea of, well, had I known and been more aware, would that have had a major impact? I don’t think now it’s going to make any major career impacts, but before it would have been possible. On the other hand, isn’t that true for fluent people anyway? As life goes on, you become more narrow in your pursuits and ambition.

A stuttering new grad tries to find a job

I’m sure I can think of a few more college stories over the next few months, but for now, let me move onto the next phase.

During the latter half of my senior year, I started searching for a job. I understood that I wasn’t going to graduate school — so obviously I needed a job.

I had gone to a nice large public university with plenty of job-searching resources. Did I know about this? Probably in the back of my mind. Did I use any of them? Of course not. That would involve going to an office in some building somewhere and … talking to someone.

A bunch of my engineering friends at the time had done co-ops. They had worked somewhere for a summer or a semester, and presumably that company would give them an offer of employment. Since I was busy at the paper — and being its editor — I didn’t do that. I considered it, but then thought it would mess up my chances of being editor. Nevermind that I was an engineering major and not a journalism major.

The other issue was that well, I was a new graduate. And I had no engineering experience. The only thing I could put on my resume was a lame senior project that I had to do for a class. I say it was lame because well, it didn’t really work. My partner and I worked on it alongside some people in the biomedical engineering department. But they didn’t seem to care much for it. And nobody cared if it worked. So we mostly just sat around and did nothing. During the presentation for the project, I stuttered like crazy alongside my partner. But none of the engineering students present seemed to care — you’re an engineer, of course you’re nervous going up in front of people!

Anyway, by now it was 2001, so the Internet was pretty helpful in searching and applying for jobs. So I did. And didn’t hear back from anybody. Of course. Because what does job searching actually entail? Networking. And what does that involve? Meeting people. And talking to them. And following up with phone calls. You see the problem.

The university also hosted job fairs. I did print up my lame one-page resume and go to these. Did I talk to any career counselor about what the hell to do at these things? No, of course not. I remember very well going to a job fair with my resume, going up to a company, and handing it to the lady standing there. I might have said hi. She just sort of took it, and … it was weird and awkward. That’s how I approached my job search in college. It was a little rough.

That summer I graduated (still with no job) and moved back in with my parents. The search continued.

Stuttering in College Part 8

I’ll wrap up this week with another post or two about my senior year at Pitt.

There is stuttering and the things we do — what we try to say, who we try to meet. But there is also a lot of fear and not wanting to engage. Just totally shutting something down before it can even happen. Despite the benefits, despite the pushing from friends or family.

During my junior year at Pitt, I was the assistant news editor. I went with the editor in chief, the news editor and the managing editor to interview the chancellor in his office. I don’t remember what we talked about. The state of the university, probably. Rising tuition costs, vision for the future, that sort of thing. There might have been some “tough” questions thrown in there.

So when I became editor my senior year, I should have done this. But I remember thinking, yeah, no, there’s no way this is going to happen. I’m not going to go in front of the chancellor and his staff and try to ask questions. And it’s not like the kind of thing that I could have just farmed out to my news editor, either.

This bothered me somewhat, but not too much. At this point I was a mechanical engineering major, and had no interest to pursue journalism after graduating. There were some of my editors who did, though. For this I did feel pretty bad.

I look back at that year of being editor and wonder if I couldn’t have done more — gone out more, talked to more people, engaged with the community a lot more. But I was afraid to. The stutter kept me back. I was content letting others do the asking and the conversing.

Stuttering in College Part 7

Today’s story comes from senior year. This is when things had really taken off for me in college — I had made it to editor in chief of the newspaper. So it turns out that despite not having read anything about “setting goals, visualizing success or having a positive outlook,” I managed to set a goal freshman year and attain it. Confidence-wise, this was huge — and something I’ve used a lot since.

At some point during the year, I got a call from the US Department of Education. They were having a conference in downtown Pittsburgh, and wondered if I could sit on a panel and talk about alcohol and college kids. Well, if this was the thing that university paper editors did, well, let’s do it, then!

Since I was pretty busy, I didn’t look into what the conference was all about, and who else would be there. I don’t remember the exact details of what the talk was about, but I remember the logistics of it. Naturally since I was a college student, I put off writing the speech until the last minute. Of course since I didn’t drink, I also didn’t know what to say about alcohol and college kids. So two days before it was due, I started asking my friends at the office. There are only two key things that I remember learning from my friends that I incorporated into this speech. The first is that if your friend drinks himself silly and gets hurt badly, this has no affect on your own drinking. You might pause to consider it, but you’ll still carry on. The other is that if colleges think they can stop underage drinking, they’re mistaken. That has to start way before, during the early years of high school.

Anyway, I typed up the speech at the office, and left it there on the computer. For whatever reason, I thought I’d go in the morning, print it out, and then head downtown. Cruelly, the conference was on a Sunday morning. So of course I got up late. And drove up to the office in a huge hurry, printed it out, and headed downtown. I think I actually woke up about 10 minutes before I was to give the speech. Who makes a college kid go downtown early on a Sunday morning?

I parked up downtown and ran over to the hotel. I found the room, and got up on the little stage at the table. There were three of us, I think. Someone else was already talking. I don’t recall if I had to sit or stand to give the speech. Anyway, soon it was my turn, so I looked at my page and opened my mouth.

If there were 500 words on the page, I stuttered on 600 of them. Seriously, it was a total train wreck. I tried to look up once in a while. I saw a smiling face or two, but otherwise a lot of bored looks. I’m sure the audience members probably just thought that I was super-nervous. I mean, hey, here’s a college-kid giving a speech in front of a bunch of strangers. Everybody is afraid of public speaking, right? It was really, really quiet in there. And here I was, trying to drone on. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t get any kind of rhythm going. I was like a kite dragging along the ground.

I definitely didn’t take the prep work seriously enough. I also severely underestimated my stutter. I hadn’t given a speech or done any public speaking like that while in college. I probably thought I’d be ok since I had been doing the undergraduate teaching assistant thing. But that was more spontaneous. Reading from a script was awful.

What I should have done is written the speech a few weeks before and practiced the hell out of it in front of friends. Gained some confidence. Gained some insight. And really get some ownership of the material. But no. I just winged it, and it was disastrous.

After the speech was over, I just sort of sat there, trying to disappear. There was the rest of the conference to check out, but I sheepishly had a little snack and then got back in the car and went home. I never mentioned it to any of my friends.

Stuttering in College Part 6

Onto junior year. By this time I was really happy at the newspaper and could see that yes, I might be able to reach my freshman-year goal of becoming editor in chief by senior year. The position was really only open to someone who had experience at the paper, and who the advisors were familiar with. There was one other person I’d have to interview against, but I don’t think he was taking it terribly seriously.

This is when I started to see how organizations — and moving up in one — really worked. It was all about networking and who you knew. You couldn’t just cold-call and hope to get a job.

My junior year I also moved off campus (but still within easy walking distance) and got a car. The car was useful for driving the four hours back and forth to my parent’s house. And driving aimlessly around Pittsburgh on the weekends. Gas was cheaper back then.

During high school, I managed to get a bit of a reputation with regards to my somewhat reckless driving. I don’t think I was too bad — I never crashed into anybody or anything — but it continued in college once I got my car. The other bit that added to the story was that I didn’t drink — so I’d end up being the designated driver all the time.

Sometime during my junior year I had the first thoughts regarding my stuttering and what was really going on below the surface. I got a taste of the iceberg — although I didn’t know about it at the time. And even though I got a taste, I didn’t do anything about it.

It goes like this: I realized that my driving — reckless or fast or otherwise — was causing people to talk about it. They’d think me, then they’d think of the driving. My subconscious had, for the past few years, been playing this little game. It found things to divert everybody’s attention. Sure, they seemed innocent or “just the way I was,” but really, they were all just a diversion. If people were talking about my driving, then they weren’t talking about my stutter.

I think for some people who stutter, they’re introverted to begin with. So they’re not doing other things to divert everybody’s attention. I’m not. So if I was going to be out there, out talking to friends, seeing new things and having new experiences, I’d dictate the terms. And what people would remember of me during those times.

A few years after college, I sat down to write more of my thoughts on this. And realized a lot of who I was had been set up by my crafty subconscious.

Stuttering in College Part 5

Back to reviewing my college experience. If you want to check out the first few parts, here are the links.

Before College

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

That covers things up to my sophomore year.

During freshman year, I had taken a University Honors College course in chemistry. And done poorly. Well, a B- anyway. Second semester I took regular chemistry. For whatever reason, I was determined to make this Honors College thing work. So for my sophomore year, I took an Honors physics course. Horrible, horrible idea.

This wasn’t some extension of high school physics. This was a deep dive into theory and fast paced. The guy who taught it had founded the Honors College. And here I was, lost in a class of more than a hundred students without anybody to go to for help. I had a pretty solid outing, but ended up getting Cs both semesters. The medical school dream was starting to wither away. A horrid showing in organic chemistry (and its lab) sort of sealed the deal. By the end of that first term, I was searching around for something else.

Since my dad had an engineering degree, he thought I should give that a go. So I signed up for some of the introductory engineering courses. Stuff like basic computer science and engineering analysis — lab stuff. Turns out that if you stutter, you really don’t like talking to people and finding out the exact course to take. I can figure this out on my own!

When I applied for graduation two years later, I found out that I had taken the introduction to computer science course — for computer science majors. That pretty much explained why it was so bloody difficult. I was told that there was a more basic one that all the engineering students took. Right. And remember, if you’re doing poorly in a course, it’s not somebody else’s fault — it’s yours. So figure it out!

My rampant foray into academic mediocrity aside, I was making great progress at the newspaper, though. I was still taking photos, writing the occasional news article, and doing sports as well. All of my friends were at the paper, and none were in whatever major I thought I was in. I spent a lot of hours there. That would definitely explain the deteriorating grades.

While I can’t remember a specific stuttering story from sophomore year, I think the transition from pre-med to engineering is a great example of how my stutter got in the way. I could have sat down and had a long conversation with a counselor, or professor, or fellow student on what courses to take. And in what order. But I didn’t. I did it the hard way. And I never did have that conversation! I was under the impression that I’m in college, so I should be able to figure stuff out on my own. Well, not really. There’s plenty of support systems out there, you just have to ask.

However, I don’t want any of you to think that I acted entirely in a vacuum. Oh no. You did have to have a sign-off from your counselor on courses. The one assigned to me was a really nice professor, but he was also very busy. And I don’t think he knew the exact order to take courses in. Or that some should be taken before others or whatever. For the entire time at Pitt, whenever I visited any professor (very rarely, mind you) I always felt like I was bothering them, that I was taking up their valuable time. That my stutter would drag things out, and things would just take way longer than they should. I felt the same about e-mails. I thought they’d think to themselves — ‘why can’t this guy figure it out on his own? He’s in college!’

Stuttering in College Part 4

Let me wrap up freshman year today with this article — it’s something I talked about earlier. As I said before, the whole of an article may not be what point I want to make, but sometimes I find something in there that’s interesting and applicable.

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.

So my stuttering basically made me doubt whether I could ever fit in or not, and a few bad grades in a bunch of classes made me wonder if I could ever succeed long-term. It would have been nice to have someone there to give me a lot more guidance on all of this.

The counselors who we had there would help in selecting classes and figuring out a rough idea of a major. I wanted to do the whole pre-med thing. But there was never any follow-up. They never asked that we come back to see them and make sure we were making adequate progress. And since I was so good at hiding my stutter, they never said anything about that either.

For whatever reason, during freshman year I also signed up to become an undergraduate teaching assistant. I probably thought this would help my confidence out a little bit and get me some “public” speaking practice. I had done some one-on-one tutoring in high school and enjoyed it. I probably also thought I should do something extracurricular that’s academically-inclined to keep up that whole medical school dream.

Basically at Pitt they had math classes that were also given at the high school level. That is to say if a student wasn’t very strong at math, they still had to take algebra or trigonometry as part of their major. It was also for adult students who had to meet minimum requirements. So the teaching assistants could be undergraduates instead of graduate students.

The deal was that you’d take this single-semester course, and then in the next semesters, you’d be able to have a recitation of your own — going through course material, grading papers, helping the professors proctor exams. The odd thing was that I only remember doing one presentation in front of this class — and I’d be “presenting” during my recitations. I still don’t understand how I didn’t freak out and bolt this course. I mean, it’s public speaking. Weekly. With questions.

Despite all of that, during my sophomore and junior years, I enjoyed doing this a lot. I think along with the student newspaper, it helped keep my confidence in the black despite the heavy anchor of lousy grades.

Alright so next week I’ll take a break from talking about college to getting back to some situations I run into on a daily or weekly basis. Fun simple things like ordering food at Subway and then getting ambushed by friends bringing new people to lunch.

Stuttering in College Part 3

During my senior year of high school, I took photography. I enjoyed this a lot. I wanted to keep on taking photos in some capacity come college time. What I found was at the newspaper, The Pitt News, they had some openings.

I managed to go up to their offices and introduce myself to the photo editor. He was a pretty big guy, very jovial, great sense of humor. I think he had a lot of other things going on in his life, so he was happy to show me around and take some of the load off. He had an assistant editor as well — but he was just as busy with other things.

For whatever reason, I remember that I would just go up to some of the people in the newsroom and happily introduce myself, stutter-be-damned. There weren’t too many introductions to be made, and once I met everyone, that was that. I wanted this to be my group. Joining theatre wasn’t an option, and clearly the academic-inclined groups were too intimidating.

Since I was only going to be taking photos, the stuttering thing wouldn’t be a big issue. I didn’t have to call and interview anybody.

There were basically two types of photos to be taken — news and sports. The problem with taking news photos was that I thought I’d have to introduce myself. And that I was from the paper. And then ask the person what their name was so I could make sure the caption was right. I was definitely not a fan of this. I gravitated more toward shooting whatever sports I could and let the others take news photos. Also, remember, it’s 1997, so we’re still shooting film and processing it in the darkroom.

By the end of my freshman year, there were definitely some strong forces in play. On the one hand, I was still struggling academically since I didn’t have any good friends in any classes. I was still afraid of raising my hand in class or talking to professors afterward. On the other, I had made a great group of friends at the newspaper and was spending a lot of time in those offices. It was basically the confidence thing again. I’d say that by the end of the year, I was slightly positive on the confidence scale.

The older friends who I had at the newspaper basically took me in and, during my freshman year, plotted the next three years out for me. They said that if I stuck around, I could be editor in chief of the paper. It was a simple path — start writing during your sophomore year, then be assistant news editor your junior year. That was the tried-and-true path. And there weren’t many others interested.

Awesome. People are helping me plot out my life, and they want me to succeed.

Now only if I had gotten that kind of help in plotting our my major.

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