“The power of language is just amazing to me; how you can read a book or listen to a conversation and — even though you’ve not physically experienced it — through language, you are there.” On the surface, this is a mindset that might seem suited for a poet or a writer, but for Noma Anderson, the new dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, it’s what drew her to a career in speech-language pathology. “Our wants, our needs, our thoughts are all expressed by language,” she says.
She joins the University of Vermont from University of Tennessee Health Center, where she served as dean prior to her appointment as special advisor to the president on diversity and inclusion. An expert in communication sciences and disorders and a leader in inclusive education and cultural and linguistic diversity, Anderson’s skill set is apt for tackling the unique challenges of the day. As she steps into her new role, the current global health crisis and subsequent movement for racial and social justice are at the forefront of her mind.
We caught up with Anderson to learn more about her what brings her to the University of Vermont and how she’s settling into her new home. Here are five things to know about Dean Anderson.
- For as impressive as Helen Keller was, it was her teacher and lifelong companion Anne Sullivan that inspired Anderson as a child.
“My mother was a teacher, so I was fascinated by who Helen Keller's teacher was and who taught her to do all that — how to sign in people's hands and for them to sign in hers, I wanted to know who taught her that,” she says. Though Anderson’s interest in communication disorders sparked early in childhood, it wasn’t until her freshman year at University of North Carolina at Greensboro that she considered a career in it. Her clinical expertise is in pediatric speech-language pathology and treating children with developmental disabilities.
- She puts a premium on culturally competent patient care.
“Racial health disparities are a major problem,” Anderson says, “and the communication between patients of color and health practitioners has not been the best — in fact, it's been historically poor.” She notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing a truth that practitioners have known for decades, the need for health care professionals to meet their patients where they are — with understanding and effective communication — is vital. From where she sits, Anderson sees an opportunity for speech-language pathologists to become leaders by advancing cultural competency, a critical skill in their field, across all health and wellness specialties.
- Her hallmark as a teacher, leader and practitioner is building professional development in cultural and linguistic diversity.
Grounded in an appreciation for the distinction between “disorder” and “difference,” cultural and linguistic diversity is an inclusive concept that Anderson first took up at the encouragement of a professor as an undergrad. “He was a strong proponent of us understanding the differences — that dialects are not communication disorders; they are a linguistic variety of American English,” she says. It became a cornerstone of her teaching during her 16 years at Howard University, a historically Black university in D.C., where she prepared students serving families of color to graduate with the resolve and expertise to advocate for their patients.
- The mid-winter move to Vermont from Memphis doesn’t scare her.
“Let me say it this way: it’s more a curiosity.” From the confines of a Burlington hotel room where she’s quarantined, Anderson recalls enduring New England’s notorious winters as a grad student at Emerson in Boston. (Combine that with a February visit to UVM some years ago and Anderson has a pretty good idea of what she’s signed up for.) However, the new transplant and water aerobics enthusiast is actively searching for a new swim facility where she can resume her favorite pastime and settle into the Green Mountain State.
- The University’s values sealed the deal.
When it comes to the possibilities and opportunities ahead, “What really excites me is the potential for interdisciplinary practice and interdisciplinary education. It’s so important in health care and we can really be a model for that,” says the new dean. But what struck her interest most about the role was a phrase in the first few sentences of the Amplifying Our Impact strategic vision. “‘Health’ was right there — ‘the health of our societies and the health of our environment,’” she recalls. A few paragraphs later into the university’s commitment to student success and action plans for inclusive excellent at every school and college, “I thought, this is a perfect fit for me. Their values are my values,” she says.
Bonus: Looking for a good read? Anderson recommends her two favorite books, both nonfiction works by Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for her feature writing in 1994. “The Warmth of Other Suns” and “Caste” explore America’s history of race and migration. “Remarkable books. Great, great, great,” Anderson says.