Raised By Women, Chapter 1: Dr. Sandra Combs
I’m overjoyed to see Dr. Sandra Combs walk through the door of Roebling Point Books & Coffee on a rainy Sunday morning in February. I’m good friends with her whole vivacious family, and while she stands in line for a large coffee, we gush about her daughter Emily, who just found out she’ll be having a baby girl this June. We make our way to the comfy armchairs in the next room, and as she begins to tell me about her journey – sharing her gift as a speech pathologist, finding a home in Covington, and more – her bracelets jingle like a soundtrack to her words.
Check out “Chapter 2: Patricia Patterson” to hear Dr. Combs share what it was like growing up with five sisters and an incredible single mother, and “Chapter 3: Emily Boyd and Lindsay Combs” to hear from the next generation of Patterson-Combs women.
Tell us about yourself.
Oh, gosh. You want like, the whole shebang?
Yeah! When you meet someone, what’s important for them to know about you?
I generally tend to talk to people about my big crazy family full of women, and my amazing mother. And my kids, obviously. Having five sisters is pretty fantastic. I have a twin, so everybody needs to know that, so if they see someone that they think is me and I don’t say hi, it’s not me.
I went to the University of Kentucky. I was raised in this area – I love it. I got my master’s at UC. I worked for 15 years as a clinician and then #stayathomemom. I went back in ’05 to UC to get my Ph.D. with a sophomore and a sixth grader and a third grader, and [my son] Matthew’s words were, “How long is this gonna take?”
And I said, “Well, the minimum is three years. The average is four.”
And he said, “Well, if it can be done in three years, then we’re graduating together.” And they were amazing. I did it in three and a half-ish. And so I’ve been on faculty at UC since 2009.
One of the things I open with with my students every year, I ask them to guess what they think about me or where I came from based on how I look and how I talk and the fact that I have a Ph.D., and then they never are correct, because I wasn’t supposed to be in that place with a mother who had an eighth grade education and was single in the ’70s raising six little girls.
I love that exercise. Why do you start with that? Why do you think it’s important?
I want them to start to think about their own internal biases as clinicians, because part of our field and part of what we do in our field is try to really help students understand the difference between difference and disorder. And also, making assumptions or judgements about parents’ or family members’ ability to attend meetings or follow through with therapy or do any of the things we ask families to do or make presumptions about someone’s education level based on how they sound, how they look, where they live… understanding that there are lots of kids who come from poverty who achieve great things. There are lots of kids who come from money who don’t achieve great things.
I think your kids benefit from seeing the professional you. I think that’s not a bad thing, either, seeing that you have multiple sides to who you are, that you’re not one thing, and sometimes the lines are blurry and you know, that’s okay.
The classes I tend to do that in are on childhood language disorders, because I’m jumping right into assessment and intervention. So for instance, making assumptions about if any of my sisters or I would’ve needed my mom to be at meetings for IEPs [Individualized Education Programs]… if you’re an hourly wage employee, and if you miss that shift, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, you don’t pay the bill, and if you don’t pay the bill, you don’t have heat or you don’t get rent and then you get kicked out and then you’re in a new school. So the snowball of what that means – before you say they don’t care; they don’t come to meetings – is sort of the larger view of why I do it.
Can you tell us more about your field of study?
I am a speech language pathologist. The field is life span, so you could work in a NICU with preemies, all the way up till end-of-life care. My role is a preschool and school-age speech and language clinician, so I work with kids from 3 years old to about eighth grade who were diagnosed with speech sound disorders, language disorders, or language-based literacy disorders, so reading comprehension that stems from a specific language impairment.
I never would’ve made that connection with literacy.
It’s so interesting that people don’t, but when you think about it, I mean, if you don’t have oral language, you’re not going to learn to read and write – it’s another form of language, right? If you have a vocabulary issue, it’s gonna be hard to read and write or to pull meaning out of something.
And is it circular, too? If they become a better reader, they become a better speaker?
It absolutely is. Even if we have a child that’s maybe not been diagnosed with a literacy disorder, we work on some literacy pieces in language therapy, because oftentimes kids with language disorders don’t wanna read. It’s hard. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing. So then you don’t read; well then your vocabulary doesn’t build.
So you’re all at once a therapist, parent, teacher, professor…
Yeah, I actually said that to my students just last week. I was like, “All right, people. I’m turning the mom thing on here.” I do it all the time.
How do you balance those roles?
I don’t think you do. I think we try too hard to compartmentalize. I feel like my generation tried really hard to be “this is this” and “this is that.” And while there's some healthy "shut the door; I'm not at work," there's also like, "it's okay to be who you are and embrace your strengths." I’m a talker and I’m an encourager. When I tried to do it the other ways, I felt like I was not loving my job and I wasn’t good at it, but in the last three semesters, I’ve just sort of decided, “You know what? This is who I am. This is how I’m gonna do my classes.” We talk. We write. We listen to each other. I ask them for grace and then I extend them grace – and then I say, “But don’t take advantage of my grace.” So I think you can’t turn it off. Once you’re a mom, you kind of just see the world in a different way.
You’re going to be working with people who are being told that they’ve failed over and over and over again. They don’t need one more person to tell them what’s wrong with them.
On the flipside, I think your kids benefit from seeing the professional you. I think that’s not a bad thing, either, seeing that you have multiple sides to who you are, that you’re not one thing, and sometimes the lines are blurry and you know, that’s okay.
Why did you choose to go back and get your Ph.D. when you did?
When I was in my master’s program, I was the last person that wanted to ever get a Ph.D. I didn’t do a master’s thesis; I took an extra research course instead and said, “This is not anything that I ever wanna do.” Like, why would anybody ever want to go to school? ’Cause I had just spent six years in college.
Later, when I was a practicing clinician, one of the things I loved to do the most were difficult evaluations and assessments where your standardized test was never gonna be enough and you had to go deeper. Historically, we would identify kids based off of a language test that’s standardized, etc., but none of them are perfect. No standardized test is perfect. I do believe there’s a place for them, but I think it’s one place.
Nancy, my boss at the time, she was the program director at UC. She always encouraged people and she would see things in people that you maybe wouldn’t see in yourself. We had a little guy – I was out in Blanchester at a very small Head Start, and there was this little boy that came in, and out of 45 kids, I think he was the only African American, and he did not speak at all. And so it took me an entire three months to get a really good picture of who he was. You weren’t gonna get a standardized test from a kid who’s not talking. He had no men in his life. His mom lived with his grandmother and an aunt, and they put him in a classroom with a white male teacher. He was three. I mean, you could just see, there was just this sort of discomfort and fear about this person, but that teacher was amazing.
At the end of that experience, I was talking to Nancy about how energized that made me feel, digging and figuring out that he was really just selectively mute. Mom kept saying, “He talks at home. He talks at home.” Grandma: “He talks at home,” and they would tell me all the things he said, and I was like, “I believe you, ’cause he’s following directions. He’s watching the other kids; he’s following the routine…” And to not speak at all, at all – not even a grunt – takes a lot of control.
And Nancy was like, “You know, that’s what a Ph.D. is. That’s what research is.” And I was like, “Oh, interesting. I’ll shove that way back here.” I was pregnant with [my daughter] Lindsay.
[Fast forward eight years or so.]
The timing of it was they had a grant from the Department of Education, and I thought about it and I went through all the steps and then I said… I’m not gonna do it. I loved the idea of teaching. I didn’t love the idea of research, but I knew I had to figure it out. Mostly just because it scared me. So I think that was really the bigger impetus, rather than timing, so I started in 2005.
It was the hardest fun thing I’ve ever done. I don’t even think I knew I wanted or needed empowering, but it was very empowering. And it was very like, mine. It was mine. And so we just figured it out, and I was up till 2 o’clock most nights. I’d go to school or work – ’cause I worked part time all the way through – and then I’d come home and do dinner and hang out with the kids, and then they’d all go to bed and I’d fire up the laptop.
How did your relationship change with your kids when they saw you taking this new ownership of your passions? What do you think they learned from that?
From my perspective, I think what they saw was I’m a pleaser; I’m a peacemaker. It’s what I do. I like other people to be happy, and it’s genuine, but that can get you into trouble when you sort of lose yourself and you don’t realize you’ve lost yourself. So I think what they were able to see was that suddenly, I had a voice. I think [my daughter] Emily… All she’s ever wanted to be was a wife and mother, but now she knows she can be a wife and a mother – very successfully – and have her own passions.
You strike me as being particularly self-aware – really able to think through your personal strengths and weaknesses and really able to talk about that. I wonder: Is that important in your profession? Is it important that your students learn to have that?
I like other people to be happy, and it’s genuine, but that can get you into trouble when you sort of lose yourself and you don’t realize you’ve lost yourself.
I think it is, because if you’re not aware of your own strengths and weaknesses – and understand that we all have them – how are you gonna tell a parent, “Here’s your child’s strengths, and I want to use them because here’s where he’s struggling.” You’re going to be working with people who are being told that they’ve failed over and over and over again. They don’t need one more person to tell them what’s wrong with them.
And you know, I have those five sisters who kinda keep it real. My mom always kept it real. My mom always said, “You can’t have all the charismas. You got what you got. And be good at what you got. But you can’t have it all.” So it’s okay to realize that you’re not the best at everything, but you can be the best at whatever you’re called to do.
Tell us about your connection with Covington and with the Roebling Suspension Bridge.
So I grew up on this side of the river, and then I moved to Mason and I lived there for 17 years, and that was really important for me at that time. I needed to be far enough away from my family that I had my own identity, and I developed the most amazing friendships and was able to raise my kids in that great school system. But I always sort of felt like a visitor. And it was a point of contention between me and my ex-husband. I said, “I want to live in a high rise.” I want people. I need people. I need the energy of people and I love noises, and part of that is I was raised with seven people in a tiny little space. Other people need quiet. I don’t. Quiet is disconcerting to me.
So once I knew it was time to move out, I happened to know someone whose mother-in-law owned a building down here, and I walked into this place on Greenup Street and was like, “I’m home.” Within weeks, I said, “I’ve never felt more at home than I did in Covington.”
The bridge to me is just so… when I’m looking that way, that was where I was, and it’s still home, and when I’m looking this way, it’s where I came from. That bridge, to me, is “I still have those people.” I have that Mason core; those friends will never be any less than they were to me when they were there. They stood by me through the divorce, and I got to come home and I didn’t have to give that up, and that’s what that bridge does to me. My sister and I say all the time, we’re like, “That’s my bridge.”