Huff Hall

SHS Undergrad scores prestigious internship

SHS E-News Spring 2023


Holly Panfil knew from a young age that she wanted to support people with disabilities. As she grew up, her passion also grew, and she got involved with organizations that provided her opportunities to work with people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“I had opportunities such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters, where I formed connections with children who communicate nonverbally, and observed their frustrations of not being able to articulate their thoughts,” Panfil said.

Panfil was also part of a Youth Activation Committee, which pairs children with and without intellectual disabilities to teach them how to advocate for the respect, inclusion and
acceptance of all people, regardless of abilities.

“That is what got me started and what made me really passionate about inclusion,” said Panfil, a junior in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois.

In fact, Panfil wanted to be a special education teacher, but her career path took a turn when, as a high school senior, she shadowed a speech pathologist.

“Once I found out there was a career that could work on communication skills and improve those, especially for people that use AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices, I just thought that was really cool and something I wanted to pursue,” she said. “Through observing her, it really just didn't take long for me to realize that this was the career for me.”

And as Panfil pursues a career in speech language pathology, part of her journey includes her plans for the summer. Panfil this winter earned a Fulbright Canada-Mitacs Globalink internship, allowing her to travel to Chicoutimi in Quebec after the spring semester ends. An experience Panfil had last summer led her to apply for the Fulbright.

“Last summer, I worked at an Easterseals camp called Rocky Mountain Village in Colorado," she said. "It's a camp for kids and adults with different kinds of intellectual, developmental, or physical disabilities. One week I got to work with a camper who's 17 and has cerebral palsy and uses an AAC device. I really got to see the issues with AAC devices and her skipping out on parts of conversations because she couldn't communicate as fast as she wanted to. Just seeing her frustration with that was hard.”

Panfil scanned the Fulbright listings, not expecting to see anything related to speech and hearing science, she said, adding that most research opportunities “seem to be for engineers and computer science majors.”

This time, she was happily surprised. She saw a listing to work with Dr. Julie Bouchard from the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi on the “voice output communication aid uses in the workplace” project.

“Once I saw that there was a project that related to improving AAC devices, I was pretty set on applying,” Panfil said.

With encouragement from her mentor, Dr. Raksha Mudar of SHS, Panfil applied and got the coveted internship. She leaves for Canada in May and will spend the summer working with Bouchard.

“The goal of the project is to learn how VOCA (voice output communication aid) users communicate in the workplace and discover strategies to improve those conversations with coworkers. I will be focused on transcribing and cleaning audio data of VOCA users to prepare it for analysis,” she said.

While Panfil is focused on her work this summer, she is also making plans for the future.

“My plan is to get my master's in speech language pathology. And I've been in the process of researching different programs and trying to narrow down my list … and yes, (Illinois) is on the list, she said. “My time in Dr. Mudar's lab has made me consider getting a Ph.D. to pursue a career in research. That wasn't my plan coming into college. I'm hoping that this summer will maybe offer some clarity on that idea.”