The first graduating cohort of students in College of Western Idaho’s (CWI) Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) Program have spent the last two years working alongside each other nearly every day. So much time spent together that students consider one another like an extended family.
“We had class four days a week, open lab on Fridays, and we even would have study groups in the evening for a few hours,” said OTA student, Kim Shores. “Even our instructors we have grown so close to because they care so much and are so invested in our success.”
But for Shores, it doesn’t only “feel like” she is training and learning alongside her family, she actually is. Shores and her sister, Leslee Tate, will both graduate from the OTA Program at the end of Spring 2023.
“It has been pretty fun because we never attended school together before,” Shores said. “It is nice to text each other like, ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘what does this mean.’ We have been able to connect with each other in a different way through this unique experience, which I am super grateful for.”
“It is just that extra bit of support,” Tate said. “As a cohort, we all boost each other up but, as sisters, it is a different and deeper connection we have. Before the program, we were pretty close, but going through this together has made it even better because we now share this experience together.”
The idea to enroll in CWI’s OTA program first came to Shores in 2020. She had been looking into OTA training courses in the Treasure Valley for a while but never found anything available.
“I was doing random searches one day on OTA programs in the Boise area and finally saw CWI put out an announcement in Fall 2020,” Shores said. “I connected with Program Director and Instructor, Mel Henderson, and he told me they were accepting applications for Spring 2021. It was perfect timing.”
Later that week, Shores was at a family gathering and told her sister the news — which then got her to start thinking.
“I called Kim one day and said, ‘Can I copy you? Would you be upset if I also applied and joined, too?’” Tate said. “She was, of course, excited and said, ‘Go for it.’”
As the sisters got ready to embark on the two-year course, the idea of occupational therapy (OT) was not something new to them. They both found an interest in joining the career because of their own experience working with OTs in their personal lives.
“My son passed away in 2019 at eight years old,” Shores said. “His whole life he was in and out of therapies, like physical, speech, occupational. He had therapy all the time.”
Shores’ first experience with OT was when her son was three years old, and he entered the outpatient pediatric clinic of Kaleidoscope Pediatric Therapy in Boise.
“I loved it,” Shores said. “They helped him immensely, and they helped me be a better parent through it.”
Tate was first introduced to OT when she started nannying for a boy with special needs and would take him to appointments for OT, physical therapies, and more.
“OT was really intriguing to me because it is soft and looks like play. From an outside perspective it looks like you’re playing,” Tate said.
According to American Occupational Therapy Association, “OT enables people of all ages to participate in daily living.” OTs and OTAs help individuals with things they need and want to do in their daily lives, such as taking care of themselves, working, volunteering, going to school, and much more.
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.
The courses use an experiential education approach that brings the student and the educator into a collaborative relationship to share and build upon the prior knowledge and life experience of each, just as OT practitioners do with each client.
“Our instructors have been crucial to our success,” Tate said. “I’ve had moments where I thought I couldn’t do this anymore and was struggling. I’ve never had instructors before who have believed in me so much.”
“They want us to succeed, no matter how much extra work it takes them — I think the nature of what OT is allows them to be the kinds of instructors that I think is necessary for this kind of therapy,” Shores said. “They are extremely empathetic and are available and approachable.”
In addition to the education in the classroom, the sisters and their classmates received different opportunities throughout the program to work directly with the public and with vulnerable populations, such as seniors in assisted living facilities or children on the autism spectrum. Students also have been able to pave new, innovative, hands-on, practical learning experiences through collaborations, such as working alongside Centennial Job Corps to develop a stress management course titled Life as a Habit: Developing Simple Habits to Manage Stress that consisted of five class sessions on life balance, time management, breathing and mindfulness exercises, yoga practice, and healthy sleep practices.
“The real-life application and experience not only helped us build on our current skills within the realm of OT but taught us more about our abilities to connect with and learn from our clients to discover what it is they truly need in their lives to be successful,” Tate said.
While the sisters are itching to finish their final semester and put their training to the test in the real world to earn a living, they have already begun using the lessons they’ve learned within their own personal lives.
“The other week we visited our grandmother who has dementia, and we used our skills to examine the environment in her house to see how we could make it safer and increase her quality of life,” Shores said. “We assessed her bathroom to get rid of tripping hazards like rugs and share with our aunt and uncle, who are her caregivers, to get a new shower chair.”
Both sisters say their time in the program has solidified this is their path in life and they feel like they are meant to be at CWI to gain the skills and education to enter the healthcare workforce.
“I give credit to my son for exposing me to those therapies he needed,” Shores said. “This has been a healing journey for me. I struggled when he passed away, and when this opportunity came up, everything just kind of fell into place to open the doors for me to start again. It has been hard and emotional at times, but it has been worth it for me.”
As the sisters get ready to finish their time at CWI at the end of Spring 2023, they are taking part in their full-time fieldwork rotations where things are beginning to come full circle for both.
Tate is currently completing her pediatric fieldwork with the OT that provided services to the boy she nannied.
“This experience has lit a passion in me. Something plenty of us can agree on in this program is that occupational therapy finds you, it’s a calling. We all stumbled onto it somehow and I am so grateful," Tate said.
“I gravitate toward pediatric level OT because that is where my heart is, given the history with my son,” Shores said. “I have been able to work it out that I am going to his clinic for my pediatric rotation fieldwork, and I know some of his therapists are still there. It’ll be full of more emotions and healing — I am very excited.”
The sisters say the program has been a mix of stress and emotions, but throughout the experience, they have been able to connect with themselves again in meaningful ways. Both can confidently say they are proud of what they have been able to achieve in the last two years.
“I’ve always felt lost and wondered what I was supposed to do with my life. I found it here,” Tate said. “I have been able to thrive in different ways that I didn’t even anticipate.”
They also advise anyone else interested in the program to check it out because it can change their life in the most unexpected ways.
“I am so happy CWI saw there was a need for OTAs and created a program because the Treasure Valley is growing so much,” Shores said. “There is a huge need for certified therapy assistants in this field and I am happy the timing happened when it did and to be able to finish alongside my sister.”
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 program are open through April 30, 2023, visit the Health Sciences page to learn more.