This past winter, Damian Wilson faced a crucial moment in one of his classes at UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences. In a room with students he didn’t really know, who didn’t know him, he had to give a presentation to the class.
"I stuttered through my whole speech,” he remembers. "Usually I’m so scared that I don’t even say everything I want to say. But when I started stuttering, I felt so calm—I felt like I was OK with it. After it was over, I was as happy as I could be. Because I had faced a fear of mine and I had done it.”
The senior communications sciences and disorders major remembers stuttering since he was 5 years old. But it took many years before he would feel comfortable speaking to anyone outside his immediate family.
It took longer than that before he realized that he wanted to use his experience as a gift, to become a speech language pathologist and work with children who are facing the same challenges that he’s faced—and overcome.
Growing up, Wilson says he was "lost.”
"Every school year was the same thing. I would be at a school for a year and I would want to leave,” he says. "I didn’t want the kids to know I stuttered and I didn’t want to be teased.”
So he stayed in the background, only opening up to his family members, some of whom also stuttered. Lacking confidence and hating school, he brought home report cards with near-failing grades.
"I think people looked at me like I was stupid,” he says. "But when you’re not confident in yourself and you hate school ... I never was an A or B student. I don’t think my parents understood why I was getting those grades.”
He enrolled in college after graduating high school, but lasted nine months before dropping out.
"I wasn’t ready,” he says. "My classroom speeches were horrible—it was like I was reliving high school. I couldn’t handle it, so I left. It took me years to have enough confidence to be in school all over again.”
He spent those years working, bagging groceries and unloading packages, working as a lab tech and dietary aide and finally an audio engineer for television news. But then he saw a pattern to his career: He consistently chose jobs that didn’t require him to speak or where he could minimize talking to co-workers.
Not wanting to stay in the background for the rest of his career, Wilson went back to school, enrolling in UC in 2007 at 27 years old. Shortly after, he met Associate Clinical Professor Carney Sotto, PhD, undergraduate program director for the college.
"When I met Damian, he was so motivated, a really focused young man,” says Sotto. "I was impressed that he wanted to be a speech pathologist. He’s even a different person now than when I met him three years ago—he’s more assertive, he takes more initiative.”
Associate Professor Jo-Anne Prendeville, EdD, says Wilson’s not a student to stay quiet if he has questions about his work.
"Damian will make a point to come and talk to you,” she says. "He’s very specific. He’s knows what he wants to ask and he’ll turn that around and use it to be successful. He’s got such a positive attitude and he’s just such an enjoyable person.”
To recognize his achievements, the college has selected Wilson as its flag-bearer for the 2012 Commencement ceremony.
Wilson says he is "honored” by the selection—and is looking forward to returning to French East in the fall, when he will start the master’s program in Speech-Language Pathology.
Outside UC, Wilson works with both the adult and youth sections of Cincinnati’s chapters of the National Stuttering Association.
He’s also started volunteering with UC alumna Lisa Froehlich, PhD, an SLP at Cincinnati’s Taft High School, serving as an assistant in her speech therapy sessions. He wants to return to a similar urban school to work once he becomes an SLP.
"All of the speech therapists I’ve had in my life, all of them wanted to help me,” he says. "All of us want support in life and all of us want to be appreciated in life—and all of my SLPs appreciated me.”
It’s just recently that Wilson started to appreciate his own history with stuttering. While attending a meeting of the National Stuttering Association, he said he had an "epiphany” when learning about covert stuttering, a term used to describe stutterers who avoid certain words or situations that could lead to them stuttering.
"I understood that was me,” he says. "All those years, I was hiding. I put a wall up and told people that they didn’t understand me. But if I don’t open up, or if I don’t speak, how will other people ever know me? So I finally understood that—and I want to help others who stutter understand that as well.”