SPOKANE, Wash. – When Megan Brendal was in grade school, a language-screening test labeled her as “limited English proficient.”

Among other things, she misidentified a leaf as a feather and said that boats were often seen on the street, not water.

But the standardized test didn’t take into account that Brendal was from the desert vistas of New Mexico, where pinyon trees have needles instead of leaves, and vehicles towing boats on roads to distant waterways is an everyday sight.

In Brendal’s world, her answers were correct. Her language wasn’t impaired. She was different.

Years later, Washington State University recruited her, in part, because of her difference.

Brendal is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, the second largest tribe in the country. In 2017, she earned her master’s degree at WSU and soon afterward became the first Native American faculty member of WSU’s Department of Speech and Hearing Services, part of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Weaving an I’ve-been-there perspective to her work with children, she helps ensure that their communication is being viewed and assessed on an individual basis.

“I’ve learned from my own experience how cultural and regional differences shape how a child speaks, listens and learns, and how that affects whether or not academic and individual needs are being met,” said Brendal, who became a speech-language pathologist clinical fellow after graduating from WSU.

“Providing speech-language services requires an awareness of, and a sensitivity to, an individual’s life experiences, as well as the experiences of their families and communities,” she explained.

Brendal serves as the speech-language pathologist and research coordinator for WSU’s Early Social Communication and Language Lab, focusing on neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.

Her recruitment was part of a two-decade-long effort to attract Native American students to WSU’s speech-language program, and in turn, better serve diverse populations.

Brendal credits assistant professor Lauren Swineford, who oversees the language lab and helped recruit her to WSU, and associate professor Ella Inglebret, now retired, for fostering an environment of support and guidance during her time as a student and later, as a clinician.

“Coming from a Native community, strong networks are important and I’m grateful for what WSU has provided, and continues to provide,” she said.

Brendal hopes to earn her doctorate, return to her home community in New Mexico where she can provide speech services for Navajo families, and eventually teach.