May 28, 2013 in City

NIC grad, single parent honored as a top scholar

By The Spokesman-Review
Kathy Plonka photoBuy this photo

Michelle Bristow greets her daughter, Kaytlynn, after school at Atlas Elementary School in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday. Bristow, a North Idaho College graduate, was named a Coca-Cola New Century Scholar through the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
(Full-size photo)

When Michelle Bristow moved to Kootenai County in 2010 to attend North Idaho College, she was taken aback by the level of services available for her second-grade daughter, Kaytlynn, who was born with hearing loss.

In the Portland area, where Bristow grew up, Kaytlynn had thrived with the support of half a dozen early-intervention specialists, including an audiologist and a speech and language pathologist, through schools and local agencies.

But here she realized they wouldn’t have anywhere near the same support structure.

“It was devastating,” said Bristow, who has raised Kaytlynn by herself. “I depended on those specialists – the doctors, the audiologists – all these people to help me do what was best for her. … But when I moved here it all stopped.”

She realized she was her daughter’s chief advocate, and that role sparked interest in Bristow’s career choice: She aspires to be a speech and language pathologist, with a desire to help families like she and Kaytlynn were helped.

After juggling school and two part-time jobs, the 28-year-old Hayden resident graduated May 17 with an associate of science degree from NIC. She will transfer this fall to Eastern Washington University’s Riverpoint campus in Spokane to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders, then a master’s degree.

Bristow also was honored recently as the top-scoring community college student in Idaho when she was named a Coca-Cola New Century Scholar through the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. She was presented a $2,000 scholarship, which she’ll apply to her studies at EWU.

Bristow was a natural choice for the award, said Graydon Stanley, NIC’s vice president for student services. She’s outstanding in the classroom, community service and leadership.

“When I heard the story about her daughter and her choice of a career, that’s what put it over the top,” Stanley said.

“For her to be selected and honored was just the fulfillment of a lot of hopes, dreams, wishes and planning of a lot of people on campus. She was really the right person,” he said.

As a newborn, Kaytlynn did not pass a hearing screening in the hospital. At 3 months old, she was diagnosed with bilateral neural sensory hearing loss. Sound is muffled, as if underwater, but is clarified and amplified with hearing aids.

Now 10 and headed into fifth grade at Atlas Elementary School, Kaytlynn is doing well, her mom said. The girl, outgoing and artistic, scores below average in reading, but her speech is good and she does well in other subjects, Bristow said.

And her hearing, assessed annually, is not getting worse.

Still, when Bristow first moved to the area and was told Kaytlynn tested well for her age and wouldn’t need a lot of extra attention, it was cause for worry, not relief. She felt it was the extra attention in Oregon that was responsible for her daughter’s progress, and Bristow did not want to lose that momentum.

“Here I was in this new place, new school district, and everyone was telling me she’s doing well,” she said. “And to this day I really don’t feel like they understand why she was doing so well.”

Her advocacy for Kaytlynn’s development began to grow into enthusiasm to help others in a similar way.

“I have a huge passion for helping people, specifically children, in the same way that we’ve been helped,” Bristow said. “I want to give back all the blessings that we’ve received. I want to give that back and keep it going full circle.”

She worked with an NIC adviser and took a personality test that pointed to speech and language pathology as a top career match. “So that kind of confirmed it for me that this is something that I want to do,” she said.

Bristow hopes to stay in the Inland Northwest after she completes her degrees. She is leaning toward working with families who have children who are autistic or have learning delays, or perhaps with adults recovering from brain injuries. She can see herself with a school district, where demand for such services is great.

Last month she and Kaytlynn traveled to San Francisco for an event honoring this year’s New Century Scholars. Bristow earned the highest score in the state at the All-USA Community College Academic Team competition, for which 1,800 students applied this year.

NIC paid Bristow’s way, and friends and colleagues raised money to send Kaytlynn, too.

“The trip would not have been the same without her. I would have been thinking about her the whole time and missing her,” Bristow said. “And I think it was important for her to be part of that whole experience, and hopefully I’m setting the right example for her.”

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