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Filling the Gap

Filling the Gap

Murray State University Paducah Regional Campus Establishes Groundbreaking Occupational Therapy Program

J.T. Crawford

If you go around the classroom and talk to the Occupational Therapy students at the Murray State University campus in Paducah, you’ll find that the majority of them have traveled quite a distance to be a part of the program. They are from towns in southern Illinois and points in west Kentucky such as Owensboro and Madisonville. Then there are those who have come a bit farther—from places like Nashville and even Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They’ve all made their way here because they’ve discovered a hidden gem in an ever-growing profession that they love.

“I was looking online and seeing what different programs highlighted,” says Yaszmin Koter who went to the University of Pittsburgh before making the leap to Paducah. “I really liked this one. It focused on hands-on approaches and field-work experiences. It was a perfect fit.”

Occupational Therapists help people overcome a myriad of problems that can hinder independence. Interventions can range from helping children with disabilities participate in school and social activities to helping a person recovering from an injury regain basic skills to ensuring older adults remain independent despite physical and cognitive changes. It is a field with a myriad of possibilities.

“In OT, you can work with anyone at different points along a lifespan,” adds Yaszmin. “It’s constantly changing and evolving. Coming from a psychology undergraduate degree, I was surprised at how much mental health plays is a huge factor in this profession. Our professors have taken the time to bring that in. I like things like that.”

“The field is so broad,” adds student McKenzie Vanvactor. “There’s a lot of creativity that comes into it. It’s not just black and white. We all put our own spin on it. No two patients are the same, so you have to be innovative.”

Founded in 2018 at the Murray State Paducah campus, the program arose out of a lack of OTs in communities likes ours. “There was a need for this here,” says Dr. Sherri Powers, Director of the program. “There was a needs assessment completed, and it showed what the clinicians out there already knew. OTs are hard to find, especially in more rural areas.”

Even though OTs are in high demand, the opportunities for education are sparse. “OT programs are very competitive,” adds Dr. Powers. “You can have an applicant pool of 150 to 500 for just 30 open spots. They have to be top-notch students to get in. Our students saw that as a new program, they might not have to wait two or three years just to get started.” 

“One thing about Murray State is that applying is very personal,” adds Shandi James, an adjunct professor. “I remember applying to schools and never hearing anything back. And you couldn’t get much information or even a phone number for a follow-up. What our students are saying is that they have heard directly from the director who is guiding them.”

“Out of the five other colleges where I was interviewed, Murray State was the only one to ask me about what I thought I could contribute to the program,” says Alex Lineberry who came from Nashville.  “They understood what I did in undergrad, helping me understand how I could become a great OT. Getting information when I was applying was also very personalized.”

“That’s what I liked,” says student Ashley Crooke. “After I submitted my application, Dr. Powers personally reached out to me to walk me through some things. I knew from then that I wanted to be accepted into this program. It already felt so personal. She reached out to me instead of putting that on someone else. Once I did the video interview, I felt like I already knew everyone.”

Murray State brings to the educational landscape the qualities that have always made the university a unique gem: top-level education with a small-school feel. There’s a personal touch along with individualized approaches for each student. For example, some students qualify for an accelerated program where they can complete the last year of a bachelor’s degree with the first year of the master’s level OT program. 

The school and the initial cohort of students indeed took a risk as they began a yet-to-be accredited program in 2018. After review, full accreditation was granted in December of 2019. That first cohort is set to graduate this May. “In the end, it’s about getting people back to leading their lives and gaining a higher quality of life,” adds Dr. Powers. She and the Murray staff have been energized by the enthusiasm of the students and are looking forward to new groups coming in. 

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