‘The poster professional for our program’

Man and WomanStudents like Lesley Dixon (MS’11, Communicative Disorders) are one reason the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a fixture near the top of national program rankings.

“Lesley is like the poster professional for why our program is typically ranked first or second among the 250 programs in the country,” says Gary Weismer, the department chair. “It’s not just the academic and clinical faculty, but the students who complete our program as well and represent us in the professional community.

“She has the sort of quiet, information-seeking confidence that is a hallmark of our training philosophy: Be smart, be curious, be a listener, learn more than you or anyone else expects you to, and you’ll see the results once you get into the workplace.”

As a member of the department’s academic faculty, Weismer doesn’t typically have many chances to interact with students on the program’s clinical master’s degree track. But he is certainly glad he had the pleasure to work with Dixon.

Lesley Dixon with her husband, Mike.Dixon – then Lesley Alexander; she recently got married – came to UW-Madison in 2010 after completing her undergraduate studies at Northern Illinois University. She was interested in gaining lab experience, and contacted Weismer, who had an opening. So impressed was Weismer by Dixon’s work that he agreed to direct her master’s thesis.

“Lesley is very, very smart, has intrinsic intellectual curiosity, and is willing to do the hard work required to answer scientific questions,” Weismer says. “She is not put off at all by the need to devote, say, five months of intensive labor at a computer to get an answer to a small piece of the puzzle. This is what our field is like – hard work for small but important gains – and she understood that completely.”

Dixon has brought that same mentality to her professional career. Her final clinical placement through UW-Madison was with Genesis Rehab Services, and the company hired her shortly thereafter as a program manager and speech-language pathologist for one of its facilities in Milwaukee. Pennsylvania-based Genesis specializes in eldercare; the Milwaukee site is a 300-bed facility with a unit devoted to dementia and memory care.

Dixon manages the speech therapy department and provides services for independent and assisted living residents. She didn’t originally plan on working with geriatrics – “it just shook out that way,” she says – but enjoys the challenges associated with the demographic. Her therapy sessions are certainly different than, say, those with youngsters in a school setting.

“We get to see gains, but it’s in a very different way,” she says. “With geriatrics, we’re preventing decline, whereas working with adolescents, you’re hoping to see some kind of restoration or improvement. We’re a lot of times compensating or adapting to their needs.”

Indeed, adaptability and versatility are critical attributes for speech-language pathologists, and Dixon credits her “well-rounded” education in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders for honing those skills. Since graduating, she’s come into contact with speech-language pathologists from universities across the country. Those interactions have given her a newfound appreciation for the breadth and depth of her experience at UW-Madison.

“I definitely feel like I have an edge being a graduate of UW-Madison,” she says.