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Graduate Profile: Communicating Through Adversity

When you are a person who loves language enough to become a speech pathologist, where does that passion begin? For Eloise Orr, it was growing up on Chicago’s Southeast Side. “I had a big circle of friends in high school who spoke Spanish and I wanted to speak their language,” she said. “And I love anything to do with language. I’m a word nerd.”

By the time she began working on her Master of Health Science in communication disorders at Governors State University, which she will receive this May 2020, Orr had worked as a teacher in Spain and a bilingual teacher for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for a decade — and successfully fought cancer six times. “It’s taken all that experience for me to get where I am now,” she said. “Cancer always came when something else was going on.”

Orr came from a family of teachers but did not want to follow in their footsteps. Being good at Spanish, she earned her BA in the language at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was 20 years old when she learned she had breast cancer. “I had just filled out all the forms for study abroad in Spain,” she said. Determined to go, Orr had a bilateral mastectomy at the end of her junior year and headed overseas that fall. The following spring, cancer returned to her lymph nodes. She was treated and graduated on time in 2003. “I was more focused on the things I wanted to do than on my body,” Orr said.

As she tried to find her path professionally over the next two years, Orr was diagnosed with brain tumors. She had surgery and whole-brain radiation but the cancer came back — just as she was about to head for a teaching job in Spain. Surgeons removed it, and she went back overseas that fall. “I was so happy there. I loved it!” she said. Over Christmas break, Orr learned that the tumor returned. In January 2007, the surgeon implanted chemo chips at the site, putting an end to her recurring cancer.

“I just wanted to go a whole year without having cancer,” she said. “Now it’s been 13!”

After teaching in Spain, Orr decided to put her talents to use closer to home. She earned a master of education with a focus on bilingual education in 2010 from Northern Illinois University and began working at McKay Elementary School on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Orr loved working with kids in both English and Spanish but found the CPS management a challenge. Still, it was at McKay that she discovered speech pathology as students were pulled out of her classroom to work with a therapist.

“I thought, this is something I’d really like to do,” she said. Learning she needed more undergraduate science courses, she took them at nearby St. Xavier University, then transferred to GSU to earn her master’s degree.

At GSU, Orr also had a chance to put her Spanish fluency to work, joining a Global Health Brigade trip to Nicaragua. One of four Spanish speakers in a group of about 20 students, they headed to small villages for a week to build showers and latrines.

Orr often found herself playing with children and talking with older people. “You don’t think you can fall in love that quickly, but you can,” she said. “That was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never experienced that kind of joy before. It was travel with a purpose.”