College of Communication & Education

Speech Pathology Alumna Q&A With CMSD Students

Haley Willis graduated from Chico State in 2014 with a degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders and earned her master’s degree in the same program in 2016. Willis hosted a Q&A session with CMSD students to share her story and offer career advice.

haley willis

Haley Willis graduated from Chico State in 2014 with a degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders and earned her master’s degree in the same program in 2016. After graduating from Chico State, Willis worked as a speech-language pathologist for five years, honing her skills in a variety of clinical settings. Her field experience prompted her to develop the idea of starting her own business where she could combine multiple services under one roof.

In 2021, Willis and her husband Rylan, a physical therapist, opened the doors to Advantage Therapy Services in Chico, a multidisciplinary private practice with the mission to offer both speech therapy and physical therapy to clients of all ages. Their practice specializes in neurogenic communication disorders—an area that before the opening of her business was not previously well supported by local practices—and Willis offers both speech therapy and physical therapy to clients.

In addition to serving as CEO of her practice, Willis has been a dedicated faculty member in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CMSD) since August 2021. In service to the traumatic brain injury community, she is also a subject matter expert who gives expert testimonies in court cases related to brain injury.

Willis was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award for the College of Communication and Education this year and agreed to host a Q&A session with CMSD students to share her story and offer career advice. Here are the event highlights!* 

What inspired you to choose speech pathology?

I've been on a speech therapy path for a very long time. When I was fifteen, my grandma had a stroke. She also had a diagnosis of dementia before that, and she ended up in a skilled nursing facility. I went to visit her, and there was a speech therapist there doing a cognitive evaluation with her. Then I said, ‘Oh, I need to know more about what this is. That was basically it, that's what I wanted to do. I saw what a big impact it made on my grandma, to work with this person. Then I just never looked back.

What was your first experience working with an actual client?

I think that was in clinic (at Chico State) actually…It was really scary, but you just kind of have to have to do it. I will say that I got lots of good feedback about how I needed to stop touching my hair and acting nervous. I really had a hard time with not presenting myself as being super nervous, and I actually got an assignment to go back and count how many times I touched my hair. I had no idea I was doing that at all, so that really helped me be more professional when working with patients. My first client really shaped me into being a little bit more professional, and also reinforced my desire to work with adults.

How did you get your private practice started? 

It started with just Google— looking up what I had to do…I learned what those things were, I got a space, and desperately waited for the phone to ring for months. Then all of a sudden it started ringing. I started out in a little room, and within six months moved to a bigger space…Then I figured out I had to credential with different insurances, which was a whole process. You have to do all of these other things that you would have never thought of as part of owning a private practice. So, many business related things, and they just keep coming up. I just have to keep learning as I go.

How did you build your client base?

I am still figuring that out. I can always use more clients. It's just hard being a private practice owner. There are different times in the year when it's really slow. There are times when it's really full...At first, gaining clients started with vendoring— with partnering with a regional center. Which was completely outside of my comfort zone…then there was also getting credentialed with Medicare, which was really helpful to get adults in. Then I tried going to doctors offices. One week I went to 32 doctors' offices, and I didn't hear a single thing back from any of them. What I learned is, I shouldn't just stop by the offices, I need to schedule a meeting with them. That went much better…I would say that the majority of the patients that we have right now are all word of mouth. 

What are the burdens of having your own practice?

I thought I was going to get to do a lot more treatment, but the bigger the business gets, the more that I'm not able to do that. Part of that trade off too, is that I always wanted to be able to teach here (at Chico State), that was something I was sitting in the classes going, I want to do this one day, and I'm going to keep applying. Finally, my wish came true, and I traded that off for the treatment side of things, and also opening the business. Now I get to do a little bit of everything, rather than just doing treatment. 

What is the most rewarding thing you've gained from having a private practice?

I would say, just creating something that I'm really proud of. I've really grown as a person. I feel like I'm completely different from the person I was in the hospital setting. Now, just because I've been able to, I've had to take so many risks. And I think that it's just really rewarding to also offer so many more services in this community that weren't there before.

How do you avoid burnout? 

I'm still having to deal with that. Eventually I'm hoping that it won’t always be so intense. Right now, I'm really focused on making the business work for me so that I can have more time…but I would say, you really need to make time to do things for yourself. For instance, I have a two year old, and I want to make sure that I'm spending enough time with her. So, whenever she's awake and I'm home, I'm with her. We have our little TV snuggle time and that's that. It never changes. It's always the exact same time, and I will always cancel plans if they interrupt that time. Just add things to your schedule that are for you, and you just don't let anything else interrupt those times. That's at least what's worked for me. 

How can students be successful when they graduate? 

I wish that I would have taken all of the opportunities presented to me. I got to do a lot of them through working with Dr. Bromberg and I really did everything I could with her. But, there were some other opportunities that I had, even at my internships, (where I might have been feeling really, really stressed or a little bit overwhelmed), and I just didn't take advantage of the resources that I had. I wish that I would have tried to use the resources I had in each individual internship a little bit more, so I could have learned even more. That would have been very helpful for me in my private practice.

What do you hope to do next?

I got a really great opportunity from Family First, which is a behavioral program. They wanted to partner with us to create a community center. We're going to try to have social groups for children with autism, music classes for two year olds, and they want to try to get a daycare started there. My husband, he's a secondary black belt in Kenpo, so he wants to do a special needs karate class. It wouldn’t matter if you're in a wheelchair, have cerebral palsy— any of those kids can come in and do karate class, and parent education programs. So, we're creating this community center and partnering together in order to make this happen. That's what I'm moving towards next. 


*Questions have been edited slightly and reordered for clarity.