Faculty Spotlight: Tonya Dantuma

Professor Tonya Dantuma shares about her path to becoming a speech-pathologist and Biola’s new master’s degree program in speech-language pathology

Nov. 22, 2016 By Jenna Loumagne

Tonya Dantuma, associate professor of communication disorders, was a key leader in bringing Biola University’s new master’s degree in speech-language pathology to fruition. Biola’s program is an answer to the nation’s growing need for speech-language pathologists, which is currently experiencing a national shortage due to the lack of credentialed personnel.


Dantuma, like many, was unaware of what a speech-language pathologist does before she majored in communication disorders as an undergraduate student at Biola. Since then, she’s been an advocate for increasing awareness of the profession. She started her career working as a speech-language pathologist in a public school early intervention program. Her work included assessment and treatment of young children from a variety of ethnic and socio-backgrounds with various communication disorders including phonological delays, apraxia of speech, autism and language delays. After working for twelve years as a speech-language pathologist, she came to Biola and began teaching in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program.


As part of Biola’s new school — the School of Science, Technology, and Health — Dantuma hopes Biola’s new master’s degree can fill a unique void in the world of communication disorders: graduate education for future speech-pathologists that integrates faith into the classroom.


Here, she shares about her path to becoming a speech-pathologist, Biola’s new master’s degree program in speech-language pathology, and how she hopes the field of speech-language pathology will continue to expand with technology to meet growing needs.


You never intended to work in early intervention within the field of speech-language pathology. What shifted your career trajectory to working with children?


When I entered my master’s program, my plan was to work as a medical speech-language pathologist. While in graduate school I was offered a position as an assistant in an early intervention program, and I took it. The children with whom I worked were 2-5 year olds with a variety of communication disorders including autism, Down’s syndrome, speech disorders, and language disabilities and the population was primarily families with low incomes and limited English  language proficiency. This job was a huge stretch for me and an incredible opportunity. I was mentored by some incredible speech-language pathologists and educational psychologists and I moved from an assistant, to a fellow (a student in the last year of training), to a licensed SLP and full member of the team.


I worked for 12 years at this early intervention program and my work began to focus on assessment with this population. For me, the process of differential diagnosis, that is determining a diagnosis of conditions that are similar, was a puzzle and a challenge. More than that, I found interactions with families provided an opportunity to love families at a difficult time for them and I was able to learn from families who know so much about their children and had so much to teach me.


After enjoying being in the field for so many years, what attracted you to teaching full-time at Biola?


My job as a speech-language pathologist in early intervention was a great fit for my skills and temperament. I was challenged by the task of discovering strengths and disorders in the clients I assessed, I enjoyed the relationship and partnership I developed with families, and the atmosphere of working with colleagues who were problem solvers and collaborators; I was challenged to grow as a practitioner. In addition, the professionals with whom I worked were, and are, some of my best friends. Most of my colleague-friends were not believers, however, the relationships we built created a bridge over which Christ’s love could freely travel. For me, developing these relationships and sharing Christ’s love was a huge part of my calling to this job.


I never anticipated leaving my job in early intervention when I did. In 2005, I was offered an opportunity to teach one class at Biola for a faculty member on leave. I taught the class, one three-hour night, and drove home and told my husband, “I loved that!” From there, I taught more classes and eventually took a full-time position. Transitions are difficult. I remember sitting in my very first Biola new faculty meeting and thinking, “I’ve made a horrible mistake!”  However, it did not take very long and I found that Biola was a new good fit for me. For me, teaching is exciting and I am energized by thinking about how to creatively teach a concept and give my students experience utilizing new knowledge. I have been mentored and challenged by colleagues to pursue research interests. The fact that sitting down and having coffee with students is part of my job is also a wonderful benefit.  


What need do you see Biola's new master's degree in speech-language pathology filling?


There are many reasons that a new master’s program in speech-language pathology meets needs in our community and world. Currently, master’s programs in speech-language pathology are impacted, hundreds of students are applying for 30 or less positions in each program.  In addition to that, longer life-spans and better medical care after brain injury and stroke creates a situation where more adults require intervention to recover and communicate after these types of incidents. On the other end of the age spectrum, the increase in autism, earlier identification of language disabilities, and a better understanding of the positive impact of early intervention has created a need for more pediatric speech-language pathologists. With the need for more speech-language pathologists and the shortage of master’s level programs to train them, Biola’s Master’s in Speech-Language Pathology is meeting a huge need.


However, it is much bigger than that. In the field of speech-language pathology there are more than 300 master’s programs; less than five are faith-based. Biola’s Master’s in Speech Language Pathology is unique in that we not only work to prepare students for excellence in theoretical knowledge and clinical practice, we intentionally teach and model a biblical understanding of patients as image bearers of God, Imago Dei, and our interactions, treatments, and attitudes toward our patients and their families should be shaped by that belief.


The need that Biola University’s MS-SLP Program is meeting is the need to have Christian practitioners impacting the field of speech-language pathology.


What type of incoming student may be interested in majoring in speech-language pathology?


Very few undergraduate students enter Biola University thinking they want to be speech-language pathologists. Typical undergraduates do not even know the job of a speech-language pathologist exists. The majority of our students come into college with a desire to do something medical, they enjoy working with people, and are also perhaps interested in working in education, with children, those with special needs, or the elderly.  Speech-language pathology is a unique blend of a medical profession, education, and interpersonal communication work.


What areas of research are currently filling any extra time you have?


In the field of speech-language pathology, my area of expertise is phonetics and phonology, that is speech sounds and treatment of children with difficulty pronouncing words or talking in a way others can understand. I am currently working on a research study where an ultrasound machine is used to help children look into their mouth, while it is closed, and see and change the position of their tongue in order to produce sounds accurately. If an ultrasound probe is placed on the soft-tissue under the jaw, the child is able to see the image of their tongue and instruction regarding how to place and move their tongue is possible. In preliminary studies, ultrasound visual feedback has significantly reduced time spent in therapy for these children.


Another area of research interest for me is the effectiveness and use of telepractice for speech pathology.  Telepractice is the provision of speech therapy over internet connect and its use has opened the door to therapy services being available to many who would otherwise not receive intervention.  I am particularly interested in the possibility of telepractice being used to provide speech and or language intervention to children of missionaries and underserved populations around the world.


From your experience, what advice or wisdom would you share with someone considering or currently studying SLP?


While studying to be a speech-language pathologist I envisioned cute kids, charming elderly patients, grateful families and huge progress for all my patients. And while I have experienced some of all of this, I have also worked with frustrating children, angry elderly patients, and exasperated, angry families.


Initially the reality of people and their responses to difficulties annoyed me. That changed the day I was working in an early intervention preschool program providing speech therapy to a three-year-old girl. Not a cute, pig-tailed, smell-good girl, but a sassy, skipped my bath last night, and have green snot running out of my nose girl. She wanted to sit close to me. I did not want her to. She was persistent. I worked robotically through my planned session with her, gave her a sticker, and sent her on her way. As I was documenting my session notes, the Holy Spirit reminded me of the words of Jesus, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matt. 25:45). I was humbled and ashamed. Thankfully, God forgives and teaches.


Today, speech-language pathology is one way I can love those the world sees as the “least of these”; those who, without the eyes of Jesus, I would see as “lesser.” As a speech-language pathologist, one thing love looks like for me is providing excellent intervention to my patients along with love and acceptance to their families. As a Biola professor in communication sciences and disorders, love looks like challenging and training my students to love as God is calling them.


I would say to someone considering the field of speech-language pathology, prepare yourself to have many opportunities to embrace difficult people, to encourage those who are bitter, and to “love the least of these.” It’s a challenge and an honor.


What role does Biola's clinic currently play in student experience and in the local community?


The Biola University Speech and Language Clinic offers our undergraduate students an opportunity to provide intervention to patients with communication disorders in a controlled, well supervised environment. The clinic serves a variety of clients with age ranges from 2 to 80 plus and disorders including stuttering, autism, language disorders, and language loss due to traumatic brain injury, and stroke. Most undergraduate programs do not provide clinical experience for their students. By having a chance to work in the Biola Clinic prior to graduation, our students have had hands on experience applying the theories and skills they have developed in the classroom.


With the addition of the graduate program, the clinic will expand in the number and types of clients that are served. Graduate students will be expected to provide therapy with much less support from supervisors and to more complex patients. In addition to providing therapy in the Biola Clinic, each graduate student will complete internships at a hospital and public school, many will also work in private schools and clinics in the area. Students will graduate from the MS-SLP program with more than 400 hours of clinical practicum.


Biola is accepting student applications for the new program until Feb. 15, 2017. Learn more and apply on Biola University’s website.


Learn more about Biola’s new master’s program in speech-language pathology.


Written by Jenna Loumagne, manager of media relations. For more information, contact Jenna at (562) 777-4061 or jenna.loumagne@biola.edu.


  • Chang Jan. 2, 2017 at 3:21 PM

    I have a nephew who is about to turn three in March. He is physically healthy, but his speech/communicative abilities are not there yet. He understands mostly everything, but he can not communicate well. He can say only a couple simple words. I want to communicate with him, but he simply can't connect things or he is not interested in communicating yet. Thanks!

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