At age 6, Kristina Waters was diagnosed with Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare childhood neurological disorder characterized by a loss of the ability to speak and understand spoken language. She spent the next year and a half completely mute and unable to comprehend the words of others. Waters’ parents were told their daughter would most likely never fully recover her language skills and that she had a high chance of experiencing lifelong mutism.
In May, Waters graduated from the LMU School of Education’s School Psychology program with a 3.9 grade-point average, earning a master’s degree in school psychology, an educational specialist degree in educational psychology, and a California Pupil Personnel Services credential in school psychology. She was honored at the SOE Awards Ceremony on April 9 as a 2017 Outstanding Graduate in the school psychology program.
Waters’ unlikely journey is a story of perseverance and a strong support system, both at home and at school. It also underscores the importance of SOE’s mission. “At LMU, the focus is on the whole person, rather than just test scores or grades,” she says. “I was provided opportunities to show who I was and why I was passionate about the field.”
Shortly after her sixth birthday, Waters experienced a high fever followed by a gradual decline in her speech. She began to slur her words, speaking in sentences that didn’t make sense before losing language and comprehension completely for 18 months. She was often confused and had bouts of uncontrolled crying and laughter. During sleep she would have seizures.
She slowly began to recover after age 8, but it would be another five years before her first “clear” EEG reading. Even after that, she struggled just to get C’s. “As I got older I began to realize that I didn’t learn as easily as everyone else,” Waters says. “But my parents and the school specialists helped me come up with strategies that worked, and they always maintained high expectations — they didn’t want to limit me.”
While completing her BA in Psychology at Hope International University, Waters began to consider a career as a school psychologist. “My passion for this field is fueled by my experience as a former student who received special education services,” she says. “Nobody in my life at that time gave up on me.” She found the right fit at LMU. “It’s been a phenomenal experience,” Waters says. “We were taught to look at the whole child and that child’s background rather than just at test scores. We learned about best practices, which are so important at this crucial time for students.”
That preparation hasn’t been lost on the school psychologists who have mentored her at Rocklin Unified School District in Northern California, where Waters will complete her school psychology internship in June. “Kristina’s field mentor called her one of the best interns she has worked with in 17 years,” says Brian Leung, professor and director of SOE’s School Psychology program.
Waters, who has been hired by the Travis Unified School District, located in Fairfield, CA, to work as a school psychologist beginning this summer, says her graduation from SOE has been a time for reflection. “My parents were unsure of my life trajectory when I was younger, and to reach this level of achievement is something I never imagined,” she says. “I believe in the LMU School of Education with all of my heart, and this experience has shown me that I am exactly where I should be. As someone who once couldn’t speak, I now have the opportunity to advocate and speak for students who need someone to believe in them.”