Union College has always adapted to the needs of the students and communities it serves. In 1891, that meant offering classes in German and Danish, and training students to preach the gospel in the immigrant communities of the Great Plains. Today, the college’s commitment to its students and community means extending the healing mission of Christ through a new associate’s degree for occupational therapy assistants.

The OTA program will be a two-year program, and students may enroll at Union College and begin the general education part of the program in Fall 2018. Pending accreditation approval, students may apply for the OTA-specific portion of the program in December 2018, begin classes in August 2019 and graduate December 2020.

OTA is an in-demand profession

“It’s important for any educational institution to be constantly assessing what they’re offering,” said Michelle Velasquez-Mesnard, vice president for Enrollment Services. “We need to offer new majors and improve our education so students will succeed in the marketplace.” Velasquez-Mesnard began the process of creating the new program as a part of her previous role as the associate vice president for academic initiatives.“Union has developed a strong reputation in the health sciences, and we excel in experiential learning. Occupational therapy is all about practical, hands-on learning. It’s the perfect fit.”

One of the fastest growing careers in the U.S. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for occupational therapy assistants is projected to grow 28 percent by 2026. Entry-level salaries for the two-year program are significantly above average and the occupation as a whole enjoys a median annual wage approaching $60,000 per year. In fact, US News and World Report ranked OTA as #1 “Best Health Care Support Job” and #12 in “The 100 Best Jobs” for 2017.

What is an occupational therapy assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants work alongside occupational therapists to help people who are injured, ill or disabled develop skills needed for daily life, such as using assistive technologies, adaptive equipment, recovering motor function and developing therapeutic interventions to help clients become more independent. In addition to being the second college in Nebraska to offer an OTA program, Union will also be the second Adventist college to offer an OTA program in the U.S.

Building a new program

Good programs require good leadership, and an exhaustive, year-long search lead Union College to name Cami Hollins as the program’s first director. Hollins will be responsible for ensuring the program’s success as the program seeks accreditation. “Getting to be involved in the development of the program from the ground level is an amazing opportunity,” she said. “Union’s faith-filled environment along with our commitment to service  blend well with the healing nature of the profession of occupational therapy.”

Hollins completed her Master of Science in Occupational Therapy degree at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. Since then, she has worked in hospital care, acute rehab, long-term care, school-based settings as well as home health, and has held both treatment and management positions. “I am eager for the opportunity to inspire others as they pursue the profession of occupational therapy,” she said.

“Her varied experiences will help build the education our students need. Her multi-field knowledge and administrative background will help as we work to get accredited,” said Velasquez-Mesnard.

Curriculum for this program is grounded in the sciences with students studying anatomy and physiology, human movement, and occupations, which all help to develop a foundation for more in-depth courses that expand on humans as occupational beings across the lifespan. “Our program is unique in that we focus not only on the development of knowledge, but on real-life experience,” said Hollins. “Our graduates will have the knowledge and experience to be highly sought graduates in the field.”

Because occupational therapy is a hands-on field, “our program will utilize hands-on learning experiences in a simulation lab, during volunteer experiences as well as during required fieldwork experiences to reinforce didactic learning,” she continued.

“In a constantly changing world, occupational therapy has a vital role in facilitating quality of life,” said Hollins. “I can’t think of a better way to spend the next phase of my career than by helping Union College students learn the adaptability, critical thinking skills and compassion they will need to be a light in the lives of their clients.”

Emily Roque Cisneros graduated from Union College in 2016 and now works as a freelance writer and photographer in Western Colorado.