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Beck Fellow Sfeir seeks to break down dementia communication barriers

Natalie Sfeir, a sophomore speech/language pathology major from Beaumont, envisions a future where people with dementia are no longer ostracized for their disease.

Natalie Sfeir“My ultimate goal is to help prevent institutionalization of those with dementia. I want to play a role in providing a better life for them—a life where they can go about doing normal activities, a life where they can remain, to some degree, independent,” she said.

This passion led Sfeir to apply for the 2017 David J. Beck Fellowship. The fellowship covers all school expenses such as tuition, fees, books and on-campus room and board for one year and includes up to $10,000 to pursue a project.

The Beck Fellowships reward outstanding academic achievement and allow top students to further challenge themselves with unique opportunities for undergraduate research and creative study. Through a generous gift to the LU Foundation, 1961 Lamar University graduate and distinguished alumnus, David J. Beck established the undergraduate fellowships. Recognized as one of the top lawyers in the state, region and nation, Beck has served as the president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Association of Defense Counsel and the State Bar of Texas.

For this project, she will conduct research over the summer at dementia-friendly communities throughout Ireland and in Roseville, Minnesota, all of which are renowned for excellence in the treatment of dementia. The primary goal of these communities, she says, is to prevent institutionalization of those with dementia, and allow them to live their lives with a sense of normalcy, independence and autonomy.

“I plan on investigating how these communities are developed and the challenges and changes created by these communities,” she said. “Each of these communities employs various activities in order to raise dementia awareness—ranging from school awareness programs that describe the effects of dementia to inclusive activities such as art festivals or memory cafés. It is important to me that I learn how each community sets and achieves its goals and overcomes related challenges, as this will allow me to see how a community becomes functional”

Sfeir will also visit the House of Memories in Liverpool, England, a reputable training facility for dementia patient caregivers. There, she says, she can receive training in empathy and effective communication strategies that will aid her in her future work with geriatric patients and those living with dementia.

“This training is crucial, as it will allow me to return and train others in the Southeast Texas community,” she said.

Sfeir plans to combine research with experiential learning during her summer projects in order to create a pilot Dementia Café within Lamar’s Speech and Hearing Department and to work toward her ultimate goals of opening her own speech therapy clinic and working on future research projects that involve those affected by dementia. Ideally, she sees Beaumont one day becoming a dementia-friendly city.

“The cafe would create a comfortable environment for those affected by dementia and their caregivers and would act as a judgment-free zone,” she said. “This community would further my research in observing what would be needed or wanted in a dementia-friendly community and what some of the potential impacts on and challenges to this community may be.” 

Sfeir will be mentored by Ashley Dockens, assistant professor of audiology, and Karen Whisenhunt Saar, director of clinical services, speech and hearing services in her study of communication strategies with dementia patients. 

“My mentors and I connected because we all bonded over the field of speech and hearing sciences, and have a strong desire to help and assist those that need it most,” she said. “We all enjoy challenges, and enjoy employing problem-solving techniques to help better the lives of others.”

Along with researching and applying her findings, Sfeir said she also hopes her Beck Fellowship will be a time of personal growth and reflection.

“This experience will impact my life by allowing me to be more appreciative of everything that I have in life and reminding me why I chose my particular field of study,” she said. “It will give me a chance to change lives and work with those that need it most.”

Sfeir plans to complete her studies, including graduate degrees, and enter the health care profession by working with geriatric patients and those affected by dementia. She says Lamar has given her the best possible foundation for these plans.

“Lamar has helped me achieve my goals in that it allowed me to grow as an individual and realize all of the opportunities that are available to me,” she said. “It taught me to be thankful for an education and to put work and effort towards my goals. Many of my professors have contributed to my belief in myself and have taught me not only things in the classroom but also life lessons that will stay with me forever.”

Sfeir has been involved in a multitude of organizations since she began her time at Lamar. She is currently a Lamar University Ambassador, a peer mentor for students in the Honors Student Association, and a Student Government Association representative for HSA as well as serving in the SGA House. She is also a co-chair for the Academic Affairs Committee and secretary for the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association.

 “Lamar is special because you are able to find your place here and get involved in various organizations and projects, which is a vital aspect for a successful college career,” she said. “But here uniquely, there is a personalized classroom experience where you get to know your professors and can ask questions or advice freely. Peck ‘em!”