College of Arts and Science linguistics student Shayma Shah has always had an internal drive to help people.
At the University of Saskatchewan (USask) Spring Convocation Ceremony on June 6, Shah will be graduating with two bachelor degrees—a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Languages, and a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics.
Shah had initially planned on studying medicine to become a doctor. Taking classes such as biochemistry, chemistry, biology, and physics aren’t mandatory to apply to medical school but are encouraged.
“I took biochemistry and physics in my first semester,” Shah recalled. “I was at university from 8 am to 8 pm every single day.”
Upon starting classes, she found that the course load was more challenging than anticipated, especially while working part time. The long hours and dense course material caused Shah to re-evaluate what she wanted to do.
In 2020, as Shah was taking a year-long break from her studies, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The after-school program where she was working closed. Shah’s mother, who ran a daycare from her home, was also forced to shut down.
Then, Shah’s family received notice from their landlord that he was planning on selling the house where they lived. Shah, now 26, is the oldest of six sisters, with her youngest sister being 14 years old. All siblings, except one, were living with Shah’s mother at the time.
“This was all actually really stressful,” she said. “After my first year of university, that was the most stressful period of my life.”
While attending university, Shah had been working part time at an after-school program for children. During the summer, in between semesters, she worked at Camp Thunderbird, a camp for adults with disabilities. Through connections at Camp Thunderbird, she accepted a position with a group home in Saskatoon, where a couple of former campers live.
Between working and saving what they’d earned, Shah and her sister contributed to help their mother buy a home to ensure they wouldn’t face eviction again.
“We ended up saving enough to get a house,” she said. “It was myself and one other sister that really ended up helping.”
When Shah returned to university, she wanted to make sure she was doing something she enjoyed. She recalled that she had fun during one of her first-year classes—Spanish.
“I really, really liked it,” Shah said. “I came back and decided to focus on Spanish, and modern language. I then took linguistics classes. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this!”
Born in Kuwait, Shah and her family moved to Ontario when she was two years old, and later moved to Saskatoon. Her family speaks Urdu at home, but since Shah learned English at a young age, she considers it her first language.
“I’ve always liked languages—I've wanted to travel, and you need to know languages to travel,” she added. “It was really interesting to know how languages change, and how people form languages.”
As part of her honours project with professor Dr. Jesse Stewart (PhD) in the Department of Linguistics, Shah has been studying the differences between the speed at which men and women speak, as well as the possible differences in speech rate between politicians and their political affiliations.
“I thought women speak fast—turns out they don’t,” she said. “In politics, men speak faster. There’s reasons for that though. If you speak too fast (as a woman), you’re seen as incompetent or you don’t know what you’re talking about, or you’re stressed.”
Through her research, Shah found that there’s no difference between speaking rates between political parties.
As she was pursuing her degrees, Shah learned about a career path that combined her interest in languages and her drive to help others—speech pathology.
“I found out about speech pathology, which is like medicine and linguistics together,” she said.
One of her younger sisters had a stutter growing up.
“She still stutters when she gets nervous,” Shah said. “Going to speech pathology really helps, but a lot of it’s like if you grow out of it, you grow out of it. If you don’t, you don’t.
“Speech pathology really helps you learn ways to stop the stuttering or prevent it from happening,” she explained. “You can usually feel the stuttering coming on. My sister never went to speech pathology so she struggles sometimes.”
In her experience working with adults with disabilities, some disabilities like Down syndrome, also cause speech impediments.
“The reason I wanted to do a medical degree was to help people,” Shah said. “I feel like this takes all these things, my interests, and puts them together nicely.”