Who, What, Why: Kelly Garcia-Ramos, advocate for students with speech impediments

The rising fourth-year has founded a support group for students who stutter.

Kelly Garcia-Ramos standing outside under a tree
Kelly Garcia-Ramos, a rising fourth-year neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences, has founded a support group, SpeechFluency@Penn, for students who stutter.
    • Who

      Kelly Garcia-Ramos is a rising fourth-year neuroscience major, with a minor in Chinese studies and East Asian languages and civilizations, in the College of Arts and Sciences. What they have spent much of their life trying to hide they now are making very clear: They stutter. It’s the kind of stuttering that frequently stops their sentences for seconds at a time. Words starting with “th” and “w” often become blocks, although their stutter can start on any word.

      “It’s definitely a daily struggle trying to be heard when people are trying to rush you and people are trying to just get through with it, and that’s partially why I think people try to finish my sentences, trying to guess at what I’m trying to say to just get over the bump of the stutter,” Garcia-Ramos says. “It is very hard to talk for long periods of time. It tends to be very draining physically because of the muscle tension and having to push myself to say the words.”

      From Northeast Philadelphia, Garcia-Ramos identifies as a first-generation, low-income student and is attending Penn on a full scholarship. Their mother is from Puerto Rico and their father immigrated from Colombia. Garcia-Ramos went to the selective Philadelphia public George Washington Carver High School, attracted by its science and engineering curriculum.

      They first wrote about their stutter in the essay for their Penn application, “a very therapeutic piece because at the time I never really talked about my stutter.” Garcia-Ramos plays the saxophone in the Penn Band and also plays the violin. “Music was my way of trying to express myself without using my words,” they say.

      While at Penn, Garcia-Ramos has been awarded grants to work with professors on research projects. In the fall, they say they plan to start work on a project to find a biological basis for stuttering and other speech disfluencies with Ingo Helbig, a pediatric neurologist, who also stutters, and the director of genomic science at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

      Garcia-Ramos hopes to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience and bioinformatics and data science in those fields.

    • What

      Garcia-Ramos has founded a group for students at Penn who stutter, SpeechFluency@Penn, to bring together people with speech impediments through support meetings with an aim to provide professional workshops and social events in the future. “Being an advocate is something that I never thought I would be able to be because I grew up to be very kind of closed off and very introverted because of my stutter,” they say.

      Garcia-Ramos made flyers and put them up around campus and at College Houses. The group started with four members, Penn undergraduate and graduate students, who met on Mondays at 5 p.m. during the school year. They are considering inviting students from other area universities to become members. The name is a work-in-progress, and may change to StutteringAdvocacy@Penn, “just so it focuses on the advocacy and support and less on fluency,” Garcia-Ramos says.

      “The group is mainly about how to provide hope and support for those with speech impediments and to share their experiences. My goal is to fill that gap and to provide a safe space for these people,” Garcia-Ramos says, adding that the group has become a very therapeutic space to confront my own stutter.”

      “The core message of my support group is there is nothing wrong with you if you stutter,” they say. “It is just something that we have to find ways to manage and deal with. We can still live our lives. We have our own hopes and dreams we should be able to fulfill.”

      They are supported in their efforts by speech-language pathologist Joseph Donaher, research and academic program director in the Center for Childhood Communication at CHOP. “We have been trying to come up with ways to increase advocacy for people who stutter,” Garcia-Ramos says. “And that that has been something that I never thought that I would ever have, a world-class institution and these brilliant minds backing me up.”

    • Why

      Garcia-Ramos decided to create the support group as “a rebellion to this notion that those who stutter aren’t outspoken, opinionated, smart, and driven individuals.” They were influenced by a conversation with someone in which their stuttering was conflated with low self-esteem and deep self-doubt about what they could accomplish in the future. The group, says Garcia-Ramos, is a way for them to confront their stutter for their own mental health, which has a direct impact on their fluency.

      “When I came to Penn I felt a very deep sense of imposter syndrome, like I wasn’t supposed to be here,” they say. “I didn’t think I could do anything that required talking to people or social skills.”

      But Garcia-Ramos says they are also a “very self-motivated, very driven person.” Last summer they attended a National Stuttering Association meeting in Philadelphia. “That was a very powerful moment in which I felt I had agency over my life,” they say, meeting people who stutter who are successful in their professions.

      “I became fed up with all of the preconceived notions about me and my performance and my ability to do things,” Garcia-Ramos says. “So I called my mom and said I really want to start a support group for students who stutter. That is going to be one of my biggest contributions on the Penn campus, and to my life in general.”

      What made them put their “foot on the gas” to create the group was a talk in February at the Kelly Writers House featuring author and journalist John Hendrickson about his new memoir “Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter.” He is the son of author and journalist Paul Hendrickson, an English senior lecturer in Penn’s Creative Writing Program.

      “Seeing him talk and seeing him being so confident and so unapologetic about his stutter really made me feel very emotional,” they say. “When I went up to him to get my book signed, I tried telling him how much his talk really meant to me, but I started crying because it was all so powerful.”

      Ultimately, though, their inspiration is their mother, who did not pursue becoming a teacher because of her stutter. “She told me I was a very big inspiration for her because she saw that my stutter didn’t stop me from participating in class, it didn’t stop me from doing all these cool things like band and orchestra, it didn’t stop me from achieving my dream of going to Penn,” Garcia-Ramos says.

      “She said that one of the biggest reasons why I’m here is because God gave her a mirror for her to look into what she could have been if she had followed her dreams,” they say. “That’s something that I hold really dearly, because it broke my heart, but it also gave me motivation to keep going and to not give up on myself.”

      Kelly Garcia-Ramos is featured, along with May graduate Adedotun Bello, on a Nolan Stuttering Foundation podcast, the Stuttering Springboard, about the new support group at Penn.