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Alumna Claire Willard receives Excellence in Mentoring Award

 Sept. 25, 2021  

Coming from Clinton, Mo. — a town of less than 10,000 people — to Mizzou was a big adjustment at first for Claire Willard (CSD ’04). But after her freshman year, she made two friends who would ultimately influence her choice of what to major in, putting her on the trajectory of becoming a speech-language pathologist. 

Now, Willard serves as the Coordinator of Speech-Language Services for Columbia Public Schools, where part of her role includes helping the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences place master’s students in their school-setting outplacements. 

Willard is the recipient of the 2021 Excellence in Mentoring alumni award for the School of Health Professions and was nominated by SLHS faculty members Leanna Lawrence and Beth Kelley. 

Choosing Mizzou and Communication Science and Disorders 

For Willard, coming from a small town to Mizzou was an exciting prospect at first, but once she got to Columbia, it wasn’t necessarily easy. 

Claire Willard, her husband, and her two small children stand outside their home on Halloween all dressed up as Mizzou tigers
Willard’s children have taught her the importance of work-life balance: “Work is not an option when I’m at home. They really help me draw strong boundaries that are good for me.”

“Mizzou was the big state school that had lots of tradition and opportunities,” Willard said. “I remember being like ‘There’s a Sam’s Club. This is big time. But it was scary, too. I went from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a really, really big pond.”   

At first Willard thought she wanted to be a teacher but found she didn’t enjoy her education classes. She wasn’t sure where to go from there, but those two friends she made as a Summer Welcome leader introduced her to Communication Science and Disorders.   

“I loved them, and I was like ‘What is it? What do you do? What is this program?’ because at that point it was still a lesser-known sort of job,” she said. 

It was through these conversations that Willard learned she could still help students and work in a school setting even if she wasn’t at the head of a classroom.  

Mentoring future Speech-Pathologists 

As Coordinator of Speech-Language Services, Willard mentors folks in several capacities. She mentors the roughly 50 Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) she oversees for Columbia Public Schools, she teaches regular-ed teachers how to implement language interventions in their classrooms, and she mentors Mizzou SLHS graduate students who are learning how to deliver speech therapy in a school setting.  

“It’s exciting to watch the graduate students progress in such a short amount of time,” she said. “I see a lot of growth in their confidence and in their ability to interpret school jargon and be able to spit it back out in a user-friendly way.” 

Willard’s nominator, Beth Kelley, associate professor in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, wrote: “Claire’s efforts on behalf of our students are always amazing. She invests a great deal of effort in making sure our students are paired with the supervisors and settings that are good matches for their needs and interests. She knows how important these learning opportunities are for our students, and I am so grateful to have her in our corner.” 

Another important aspect of mentoring, Willard said, is being open to be mentored herself. 

“I am always learning from my SLPs — my new ones and my veterans — in addition to regular ed teachers, administrators, and even HR professionals,” Willard said. “I work in a public school where we are members of teams, and so I think the part of what makes mentoring so great is that it goes both ways.” 

Winning the Excellence in Mentoring Award 

Willard notes it’s nice to be recognized at work and the recognition motivates her to keep going.  

“First of all, I’m humbled. I’m just the face of this award, but I’m part of a team,” she said. “I also feel empowered and motivated. Once you get an acknowledgement like this, it makes you want to keep doing the work and keep spreading the appreciation.”