For as early as Michelle Wooton can remember, she had wanted to be a teacher. After graduating from Boise State University with a Psychology degree in May 2018, Wooton was able to achieve her dream as she began teaching at an alternative school in West Ada School District.
However, after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, working in education became a struggle for Wooton. As much as she loved teaching, she knew she needed a change.
“The Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program at College of Western Idaho (CWI) was just the change I needed,” Wooton said.
Wooton’s friend, a Speech-Language Pathologist, introduced her to the world of Occupational Therapy. (OT) After doing her own research, Wooton knew it was the perfect fit because she was able to use the creativity and passion she had for teaching and channel it into OT.
“I am enrolled in CWI’s OTA Program to help people get back to their daily occupations the way they want to. I want to inspire change in people in a holistic way and be there for them when the light bulb moment goes off that makes them realize, ‘I can do this.’”
As Wooton finishes up her first year in the program, she has been able to reflect on all she has been able to learn and discover about herself. She has found out this work is a true passion of hers.
“This program is absolutely amazing. I could not have asked for a better experience. Although the workload can look like a lot, it is super doable and actually very interesting, so it makes me want to learn and do the readings and coursework.”
CWI's OTA Program utilizes a problem-based theoretical approach, fostering problem-solving through solid critical inquiry and assisting the development of a solid foundation in occupational-centered professional skills. Courses combine didactic, lab, service learning, and fieldwork experiences.
As the activities director for a local assisted living facility, Wooton can attest to how well the program is preparing her for the real world once she graduates. She uses the tools and lessons she has learned within the residents’ daily routines and activities and constantly thinks, ‘How is this related to what she is learning in class?’”
“Through this program, I have realized how much change we can make in the everyday life of people of all ages and disabilities. OT is a wonderful career for anyone looking to help people and make a change in their everyday lives. I have seen firsthand through fieldwork how rewarding and helpful it is.”
The skills Wooton learned through the OTA Program are not only used at school or her job at the assisted living facility, but she is also able to use them in her everyday life.
Wooton also works as a server at PF Chang’s where she meets different people every day. At one of her shifts a few weeks ago, she had a family of four come in, and she noticed one of the kids had headphones and was on an iPad. Wooton thought to herself he may have been on the autism spectrum, which the mother later confirmed.
After dropping off drinks for the table, the mother apologized to Wooton and said her son has sensory issues with the sauces and did not think they could stay to eat there. Wooton was grateful the mother was open and shared she was currently going to school to be an OTA. She mentioned she has learned about sensory processing issues with food and would love to try to help the family through a meal.
The mother was up for it.
After walking them through the menu and explaining what foods may be okay and ways she and the other staff could personalize the plates to help the child’s sensory issues, Wooton was able to help find an entrée for him.
“Once the entrées came out, I put his sauce on the side. The family all dipped their chopsticks into the sauce and tried it, and then eventually the son did too because he saw them do it! He obviously did not like it, but I thought it was a huge step for him to even try it. The mother told me he had other sensory issues, so I offered to turn the lights down lower and lower the music in their part of the restaurant. By the end, the son even had his headphones off and wasn't looking at the iPad but was engaging with the family.”
Toward the end of the meal, the mother, nearly in tears, shared with Wooton she had never had a server be so kind and caring towards her son. The mother expressed interest to learn more about OT and would speak to a pediatrician to see if they could get a referral for an evaluation.
“It was so cool and shows that OT really is in everyday activities — even just going out to eat with family! We can be advocates for the profession anywhere. I never would have thought I would have an experience like this at my serving job."
Wooton feels grateful to be able to help those around her and can’t wait to begin her career doing this type of work every day. She enjoys working with pediatrics and geriatrics, so she is unsure of what path she will be on once she graduates from the program — but she calls that the “beauty of OT.”
“There are many different opportunities out there where you can find a job you love in whatever you want to do!”
While Wooton’s original career dream may look a little different than a few years ago, she is happy to have found a new calling where she can still impact the lives of others— even in the most unlikely of places.
“Through this program, I have learned I have true grit. I can push myself to my limits, and then a little bit more to get where I want to be.”
For those with questions or interested in learning more about CWI’s OTA program, visit the OTA program page, or contact Program Director and Instructor, Mel Henderson, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Applications for the Fall 2023 OTA Program are open through April 30, 2023. Visit the Health Sciences page to learn more.