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OTD program prepares to welcome inaugural class

by Luanne Williams

"I do it myself," was Melissa Sweetman's first full sentence. That appreciation of independence and a drive to help others achieve it or maintain it is part of what the director of Wingate's new Doctor of Occupational Therapy program is looking for as she evaluates student applications.

Interviews begin this month for students applying to Wingate’s new doctor of occupational therapy (OTD) program. Already the University has received more than 350 applications for 36 slots in the first cohort, which is set to start classes in August 2019. The application period ends Dec. 1.

portrait of Melissa Sweetman

Dr. Melissa Sweetman, the program’s director, says students who make the cut will be on their way to a high-demand career via a program designed to help them become leaders in an ever broadening field.

“One of the things that sets our program apart is its emphasis on scholarship. We want our students to graduate as leaders,” Sweetman says. “For example, we have a course in our curriculum in scholarly writing. In addition to writing for clinical documentation, our students will learn how to write grants and do scholarly writing for publication.”

Wingate’s program will also emphasize occupational justice – the concept that every human being has the right to engage in productive, meaningful daily activity.

“Every course we’ll teach has that perspective of what can we do to break down the barriers for occupation for all of our potential clients, whether those barriers are physical, socioeconomic or otherwise,” Sweetman says.

Having run the post-professional OTD program at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Utah, she came to Wingate in September 2017 and has spent the past year developing curriculum and working through a checklist from the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, the national organization that gives new programs the green light.

A passionate cheerleader for the vocation, Sweetman says she looks forward to introducing students to what U.S. News and World Report ranks the 11th-best job and the ninth-best health care job in the nation. Some 27,700 new slots for OTs are expected to open up by 2026, and the unemployment rate for occupational therapists is a minuscule 0.3 percent. As of 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the median annual salary for OTs at $83,200.

Male occupational therapy student helps elderly woman with stretching.

The need for more occupational therapists isn’t surprising considering the wide range of roles they play.

“When we use the word occupation, we mean the occupation of living, the everyday things that someone does, from resting well, to getting themselves ready, what they do at work, all the way to the things that create your personal identity, things like spiritual and social activities,” Sweetman says. “Occupational therapy could be prescribed after an injury or illness. It may be an accident. … It could be anything that changes their way of handling their everyday life.”

She says occupational therapists also deal with their clients’ mental wellbeing, teaching them coping skills and ways to adjust to their “new normal.”

“Occupational therapy is so broad that it sometimes makes it difficult to communicate all that OTs do,” Sweetman said. “Bottom line, what you do, while you are alive, we are there to help.”

In her search for students who will excel in Wingate’s OTD program, Sweetman says, she’s looking for folks who have a desire to serve others, see themselves as lifelong learners and value independence.

“OT students tend to prefer the social sciences – psychology, sociology – over the hard sciences, but we also have exercise science majors who decide to pursue occupational therapy,” Sweetman says.

In addition to being able to handle a 17- to 18-hour caseload, she says, they must also have a strong ability to connect with other people.

Wingate’s OT students will complete eight continuous semesters: five in the classroom and the final three in clinical settings. During semesters six and seven, students will work 40 hours a week for 12 weeks under a licensed OT in a rehab clinic, a school, a hospital or other setting. During their final, capstone semester, they will be able to customize their experience, choosing a project that could include research, advocacy, education, specialized clinical work or even entrepreneurial endeavors.

“Someone may say, ‘I have a heart for the homeless population,’ and they may go to a local shelter, examine the needs of the people and write a grant to start a program there,” Sweetman says. “Another student may want to go into private practice, so he may work with an OT and write a business plan.”

She says many doctoral students go to work for nonprofit agencies, breaking new ground by developing programs where OT doesn’t currently exist.    

All of the students in Wingate’s first co-hort will be groundbreakers, Sweetman says.

“Tweaks will be made along the way as our program develops, so student feedback will be huge,” she says. “This first cohort will get to help us brand our program and have a big stake in who we become and how we set ourselves up.”

Wingate is renovating and expanding its Burnside Dalton Building in the heart of campus to house the Occupational Therapy program.

To apply to Wingate's OTD program, use the Occupational Therapy Centralized Application Service.