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For the last four years, Eastern Kentucky University graduate Cassidy Pickens has studied words. She can trace a word back to its origin as a breath, deep in the lungs. She can follow it as it becomes a buzz in the vocal cords, and as it passes through her teeth and lips to create a specific sound. But, as she stood before thousands of her fellow graduates on May 13, she reminded them that words are much more than vibrations. They are the key to changing lives.

Pickens, who graduated May 13 with a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders, presented the student commencement address for the College of Education.

In her speech, Pickens told the story of her younger brother Dalton, who was born with Down Syndrome. Over the years, she found herself becoming a translator of sorts for Dalton, helping others understand not only his speech, but who he was as a person. “My role in Dalton’s life exceeded ‘big sister’ and without even realizing, I became an advocate, because everyone deserves a voice.”

Those experiences led to Pickens aspiring to become a speech language pathologist, so she could continue helping those with communication disorders find their voice. Pickens, above all, hopes that all her future clients “know that their contributions, regardless of how big or small, matter.”        

Pickens also looks to her EKU professors for inspiration. She recalls her early days of college, when even raising her hand in class was intimidating. But, she quickly found her confidence, thanks to caring professors who always validated her words, and reminded her that her voice and ideas were important. Before long, she was participating in and leading class discussions, developing her own lesson plans, and encouraging her own clients.

As Pickens delivered her speech to her fellow class of soon-to-be teachers, librarians, and speech pathologists, among others, she stressed that they have a great responsibility to advocate for their future students and clients in the same way. “Challenge them, support them, and believe in them. By giving them these opportunities to express feelings, share culture, and set personal goals, you are promoting social acceptance, making lessons meaningful, and ensuring academic success.”

Pickens is a living example of such a mindset. Between working with her clients in clinicals, serving as president of EKU’s National Student Speech Language Hearing Association, and working as a consultant at the Noel Studio, where she helped students with a variety of communication projects, Pickens has combined her love of language and love of people into making sure everyone’s ideas are heard and valued.

The Albany, Kentucky, native will always be an eternal Colonel at heart, but is very excited to start the next chapter in her life as she begins studying for her master’s degree this fall at the University of Kentucky.           

Pickens concluded her remarks with one last call to action: “Graduates, I challenge you all to use your voice to enhance futures, one word at a time.”

It’s safe to say Pickens is already doing just that. 

— by Yasmin White, Student Writer, EKU Communications and Brand Management