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Newest doctoral program begins as academic year kicks off

by Chuck Gordon

Occupational therapist is one of the fastest-growing professions in the nation. Classes in Wingate's Doctor of Occupational Therapy program got underway this morning as the 2019-2020 academic year began.

Dana Miller knows just how much occupational therapy can mean to a family. As a preschooler, her younger brother worked with an OT, and he continued to use techniques the therapist came up with all the way through middle and high school. Now he’s off to college.

“He was such a clumsy little kid – his spatial awareness and the way he processed learning was delayed compared with other kids,” Miller says. “And now he’s on his way to Salisbury University. He’s brilliant. Occupational therapy helped him be where he is with his life.”

Miller’s mother was so impressed with the OTs’ work with her son that she went back to school to become an occupational therapist herself. And now her daughter, Dana, is following in her footsteps. Miller and 35 other Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) candidates are among the roughly 3,700 students who began the fall semester of instruction at Wingate University this morning. It is the first OTD class at Wingate.

OT faculty member works with a student

The three dozen OTD hopefuls in the inaugural class will study for nearly three years, year-round. They are scheduled to graduate in May 2022. OTD joins pharmacy, physical therapy and education in the ranks of doctoral programs at Wingate. It also joins a health-sciences stable that includes physician assistant studies and nursing.

Wingate OTD students will join a field whose day has come. “I know that I’m biased, but I think I’m part of the best profession on earth,” says Dr. Melissa Sweetman, director of the program. “OTs change lives on a daily basis.”

Occupational therapists often have to explain exactly what it is they do. No, they aren’t focused on workplace injuries. “Occupations,” in this case, consist of anything that people do to occupy their time and give their life meaning. OTs help make everyday tasks easier for people with impairments, such as physical and mental disabilities or injuries. Their goal is to enhance quality of life.

A famous example of occupational therapy making a difference in someone’s life is the story of Aron Ralston. As memorialized in the film “127 Hours,” Ralston, an avid mountain climber, cut off his own arm after it became pinned underneath a boulder. An OT helped design a prosthetic arm that would enable him to climb again.

“OTs are master problem-solvers,” Sweetman says. “That’s really what we do. Looking at how we can help you live your life productively with satisfaction.”

The profession is among the fastest-growing in the nation. With the Baby Boomer generation easing into retirement, OTs’ role in society is growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of OTs in the workforce will grow 24 percent between 2016 and 2026. US News and World Report ranked it No. 10 among the 100 best jobs, and the average salary for an OT is around $84,000.

New lab, smiling faces

Without even advertising, Wingate had 240 applicants for the 36 available seats in the inaugural cohort. And that’s for a program that, because it is brand new, isn’t even fully accredited yet (that is scheduled to occur in the fall of 2021).

Half of this year’s OTD class come from North Carolina, with the rest split among 11 other states, including Washington state, California, Florida and Massachusetts.

OT faculty member works with a student

At Wingate, OTD students have a brand-new lab in which to learn their techniques. The bottom floor of the Burnside Dalton building has been renovated to provide OTD students with two simulated living quarters: one resembling a typical home, and one fitted with more-disability-friendly appliances, such as a talking clock and a stove top that can move up and down at the touch of a button.

The dual work space is essential, because Wingate students will need to learn how to navigate a variety of patient environments. Some people who need occupational therapy have access to such state-of-the-art appliances, but for a lot of the patients Wingate OTD graduates will encounter once they enter the workforce, the latest technology won’t be available.

“We want our students to be able to see both, to know that, day-to-day, it’s likely, especially in rural North Carolina, that you might have a patient that’s going home to a single-wide trailer that was built in 1976,” Sweetman says. “There is not a doorway in that thing that is wide enough for a wheelchair or a walker. So what do we do? We have to be able to problem-solve around challenges like that.”

The latest tech was a big selling points for students in the inaugural Wingate OTD class. “Compared to all the other schools where I interviewed and was accepted to, this is the one that I felt like, walking away, I would be the best-prepared occupational therapist,” says McKenzie Bolin, a Wingate OTD student from Jacksonville, Florida. “Some of the technology and the labs here, or that they’re planning on buying here, are further advanced than some of the nationally ranked programs I was looking at.”

Wingate OTD sign

It doesn’t hurt that the staff has been warm and welcoming. “When I went in for my interview I felt completely comfortable,” says another OTD student, Jalynn Parnell, from Darlington, S.C. “I went into my interview at one of the other schools and I knew it wasn’t a fit. It wasn’t a match. I walked in at Wingate, and there were friendly faces. Everybody was smiling and welcoming.”

The students will study in a program with a few Sweetman-devised hallmarks: sharing, writing, serving and leadership. Sweetman has included in the curriculum a stand-alone scholarly writing course, a rarity among OTD programs. And she wants to encourage her students to be leaders and to give back to the community.

Even though the program is still awaiting full accreditation, Miller and her cohorts are fully sold on Sweetman and the program she has designed.

“Even when they were in the accreditation process, and I had to decide on a school, I said, ‘Nope. I’m going to wait for Wingate,’” Miller says. “There was something special about this program. It’s the people, the atmosphere. It’s everything. That’s why we’re all here.”

Find out more about Wingate's Doctor of Occupational Therapy program.