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Written By

Rachelle McCabe


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

15 March 2024

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Mum鈥檚 the word when it comes to career decisions

When Leah Zandonadi was mulling over career pathways during her final high school years, she had plenty of options. The Townsville-based JCU Speech Pathology graduate was a high achieving and vivacious student who was keen to help people in a practical and meaningful way.

“My mum actually suggested studying speech therapy to me. She just thought I'd be really good at it,” Leah says.

“And upon reflection, I always enjoyed watching back home videos; I’d look at the way I was talking as a child and observe my own speech development. I found it interesting."

Leah, who now works at in Townsville, has found that speech pathology is an important and enjoyable profession. She says it’s a broad career, with therapists able to work with both children and adults to help improve communication.

“I was initially worried that the degree and career might not be the right fit for me, as I didn’t really know what was involved and I didn’t know any speech therapists personally.

“But right from first year of my Bachelor of Speech Pathology (Honours) studies, I was doing really well in my speech therapy subjects and I realised yes, this is me.  I knew from the start that I wanted to do paediatrics. I’ve always been drawn to helping kids and I enjoy working with them,” she says.

Leah Zandonadi on her graduation day.
An image of Leah Zandonadi.
Leah Zandonadi on graduation day; and at Talk HQ (supplied).

Variety is the spice of the profession

Leah's role includes a mix of in-clinic consultations, in-school sessions, and overnight trips to Middlemount and Dysart in Central Queensland. Leah says this mix of tasks, which included the delivery of therapy to kids in the outback, ensured every workday was interesting and challenging.

“What I like about my job is that there is so much diversity. I travel to Central Queensland regularly for our outreach program, so I get to leave the clinic and go off-site for a few days to help families in more isolated areas. I also follow up with these children via telehealth in between visits so they have the continuity of service when we're not physically there.

“I spend one day a week at a Townsville school, and we also upskill educators in kindergartens and schools so they can better identify the kids who need help and implement some strategies to support these children day-to-day.”

Leah says upskilling educators also helps local families identify possible issues, which supports early intervention. “Those early years are so crucial. Children learn the most in those first five years, so recognising when something isn’t right and acting on it rather than ‘wait and see’ is the best course of action,” she says.

Leah shares her views during a recent Talk HQ team planning workshop (supplied).

Taking speech therapy off the beaten track

Leah says she’ll always be a small-town girl at heart, with her childhood and early working career spent in Ayr being among her fondest memories.

She says that being offered her first graduate role at Talk HQ in Ayr in 2020 enabled her to hone her skills as a therapist among familiar faces and surrounds. Leah says she relished the opportunity to help children in her home town reach their potential.

When it came time to move to Townsville, Leah says she was determined to continue working with rural families, and ’s outreach program to and facilitated the best of both worlds.

“With rural work in general, I feel like there's another level of appreciation for the work we do from the families,” Leah says.

“They are so grateful that you're bringing a service to them.  Rural communities don't have the luxury of choice, so if they're not seeing progress, or they're not happy, they don't have someone else to go to.

"To attend a specialist appointment, these kids need to travel for hours, have a day or two off school, not to mention the extra expenses incurred by the families I’m very motivated to nurture these children and do the best for these families because we’re all they’ve got.

“We definitely jam-pack these trips. It doesn’t feel fast paced when you’re doing it, but when you get to the end of the day you are exhausted. It’s worth it because we feel a real connection with the families out there.”

Leah outreach trips involve two full days of back-to-back consultations with local children. She says speech therapists often work alongside other health professionals, including occupational therapists, orofacial myologists, psychologists and Ear Nose and Throat specialists, who were not usually based in regional towns.

An image of Leah in the work car.
The Talk H.Q. speech therapy team.
Leah ready to travel to an appointment, and with the Talk HQ team (supplied).

Embracing every opportunity university brings

Leah thrived during her university years. The academic setting was a perfect fit, with Leah taking on student mentoring roles and running JCU Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS).

As her second year drew to a close she was inducted into the , which recognises and encourages scholastic achievement for students who achieve in the top 15 per cent of their university.

“I ended up graduating with distinction overall, which was nice as well. I’ve put in the hard yards because I wanted to make the most of my  time. I was at university to learn and I worked hard because I wanted to be a good speech therapist,” Leah says.

“I'm a very academically driven person. In my four years of uni I missed one class.”

Leah took on a student mentor role in her second year, which saw her supporting first year speech pathology students, and was also a mentor leader whilst at university. In her third year, she also led PASS sessions for her favourite subject — anatomy.

Leah also says that she embraced the social side of university life, forging lifelong friendships and professional relationships after spending two years living on campus and studying within a close-knit cohort.

“Speech is a really small cohort. It’s a really personal course; the lecturers know your name and often a bit about your situation. They knew I was living away from home and that I wasn’t a local, and were always approachable and willing to help,” Leah says.

Leah Zandonadi with her university friends.
Leah Zandonadi with her certificate.
Leah Zandonadi outside J. C. U.
Leah (on right) has maintained close friendships with her university peers; with her JCU Golden Key certificate; and outside the JCU Clinical Practice building (supplied).

High demand and high rewards

Leah says the health sector is experiencing a national speech therapy shortage and encouraged school leavers to consider pursuing a career in the speech pathology field.

“The relationships you form, and seeing your clients progress and get to the point of discharge is the best feeling. Having been on the journey with them and knowing that you’re the reason they are where they are is so rewarding,” Leah says.

“The range of career options out there for speech pathologists is another drawcard.

“Speech pathologists work with people across the lifespan, from birth right up to end of life care. We can work with children, adults, or a more generalist role and do both.

“There are therapists who specialise in hearing loss, others who work only with Autistic children, or you can work in a hospital, a school, or elsewhere. There is so much variety.”

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