If you had never met 19-year-old Katie Digena before, you would never be able to tell from her bubbly personality that just two years ago she was nearly mute.
Digena has struggled with a stutter since she first was able to speak at two years old. Bullied heavily in elementary school, Digena entered junior high school looking for a way to avoid speaking and being bullied any further. An English teacher suggested that she try communicating through a whiteboard and marker, which went on to become Digena’s voice for most of the next six years at school. Although it was a salvation from having to use her voice, it didn’t prevent bullies from targeting her.
“There were a few times when someone would take my whiteboard—break it, throw it away,” Digena said. She only spoke to her parents at home and a few close friends.
After high school, Digena entered Suffolk knowing that she would have to start speaking to get through everyday adult life. She slowly started speaking little by little in her first semester.
“I started to talk in my English class a little, and I realized I was able to not stutter as much. I thought, ‘I can do this, in this one class.’ Then I did it in a second class. I started talking more and more,” she said.
Digena also went to therapy to help with the social anxiety she felt about public speaking.
“I was told to just talk, just forget everyone’s around. If you stutter, just keep pushing through it, just keep going,” Digena said.
Now in her fourth semester, when Digena speaks, her stutter can barely be found.
“It’s a world of a difference. I don’t even remember her stuttering her last time I saw her or the last dozen times I’ve seen her. I think she became much more confident in herself and who she is,” said 19-year-old Spencer Ross, Digena’s friend since junior high.
Digena hopes to become a teacher or even a public speaker at schools and colleges in the future.
“I want to be the voice for other people when they can’t talk because they’re terrified. I would be terrified to go to school, terrified to get up in the morning. I wanted to kill myself—I tried it. It was such a horrible time in my life. I just want to be that voice for other people,” Digena said.
Suffolk student Kimberly Ramirez, 19, has been Digena’s friend since third grade and says she is proud of Digena and is happy that speaking has become easier for her.
“Having a stutter is something that a lot of people don’t realize the effect that it can have on someone, and also the way that other people perceive it and treat you as a result of it. I don’t think people fully understand the impact that that can have on someone’s life,” Ramirez said.
For others going through something similar, Digena has some advice.
“If I could speak to my junior high self, I would say, ‘This is all for right now. Your entire world is this school — for right now. But when you’re older, you won’t even think about these days. You’re going to look back and you’re going to think, ‘Wow, I spent all that time worrying about what people thought when I could’ve been doing something that made me so happy.’ And right now, I want to take back that time, and do as much as I can with it,” she said.