One of Syrtiller Délores McCollum Kabat’s favorite Montclair State memories relates to the 1960 Olympics. “I was on the fencing team and I ran track and field,” she recalls. “The U.S. Olympic track team was training on campus during my senior year and I was one of two athletes called on to help train sprint champion Wilma Rudolph. It was fun – especially when I won!”
There were many challenging memories as well. As the only African American student in her major or living in the dorms, Kabat was a Montclair State student long before diversity had become the University’s hallmark. But Kabat was hardworking and determined, and in 1960 completed a degree in Social Sciences with a special endorsement in Speech and Hearing.
That year, the Wayne, New Jersey school district contacted Montclair State to recruit a graduate from the Speech and Hearing program. They were referred to Kabat. “Those were the days before cell phones and emails,” she says with a laugh. “I had been staying with relatives in New York City and it took about ten days for them to find me.”
Kabat wasn’t all that interested in the job at first, as Wayne was not a very diverse community. “But then I learned that I would have an opportunity to design and direct the speech program for the entire district,” she says.
She took the job. “I reported directly to the district’s superintendent and became one of the highest paid graduates that Montclair State had ever had at that time,” she says. “I rotated through all of the district’s schools and grade levels, and I provided training to the elementary school teachers.”
Always on the lookout for ways to improve her approach to speech therapy, Kabat designed a small, curved table to foster communication at her parent consultations. “I modeled it after tables that are used at the United Nations,” she says. “And I had the district build copies of it for all of the schools.”
Kabat’s intense curiosity about her field would take her down many interesting roads. She spent summers providing speech and hearing therapy for the Archdiocese of Newark in exchange for lessons in sign language, provided by one of the priests. “Whenever I wanted to learn something, it seemed an angel would appear,” she says with a laugh.
One of those angels was an optometrist who collaborated with her to research the connection between language, self-esteem and vision. “Because of our work, I was able to attend the Gesell Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine,” she says.
Her work included developing a treatment to correct tongue thrust, and together with other Montclair State students and graduates, she was active in the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), which now serves as the certification authority for the field.
Along with earning a master’s and PhD at The Wright Institute, Kabat’s career took her to California and Missouri, to roles ranging from assistant professor of counseling at San Jose State University to licensed professional counselor in Missouri. She was immersed in her life and work and hadn’t given much thought to Montclair State until one of her sorority sisters encouraged her to come to campus for her 50th reunion.
Kabat was impressed by the changes she saw at the campus and was intrigued by a conversation she had with then President Susan Cole. “Dr. Cole told me about the University’s commitment to diversity, and about her vision for inclusivity,” Kabat says. “I started paying attention to the newsletters and magazines I was receiving from the University. I could see that she was true to her word.”
When Kabat, now retired, learned about the Red Hawk Fellows program, which was created to assist students who have been emancipated from the foster system, who are homeless, or who don’t have immediate parental or extended family guidance, she wanted to help. “I especially want to support students who, under these circumstances, are still managing to stay in school and achieve,” she says.
In giving back to her alma mater by establishing the Syrtiller McCollum Kabat Endowed Scholarship, Kabat is keeping the transformative power of education alive for generations to come. “I want to help students who are working toward an education despite the challenges in their lives – the students who are working multiple jobs to stave off food and housing insecurity. A little support can go a long way toward helping them cross the finish line.”