Union College’s newest academic offering, the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, has received full accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Four years in the making, the accreditation became official in April, just before the program’s first cohort of twelve students graduated.
The OTA team received a seven-year accreditation with no areas of concern—a highly unusual occurrence for a new program. Most programs begin with only five years of accreditation, and most also have at least a few areas of concern noted by accreditors.
“We are proud and thankful for the hard work put in by Laurel Radley and the rest of the OTA faculty who helped us surpass accreditation requirements with flying colors,” said Vinita Sauder, president of Union College. “We are also so thankful for the support of the wider school community and our alumni. This would not have been possible without them.”
Program Director Laurel Radley, who stepped in from retirement to help Union launch the program, glowed with excitement over this achievement. “I am over the moon; I am so proud of everyone involved. Everyone from Plant Services to President Sauder has just given us 100 percent of their interest and support. We are so blessed at Union to have this sense of family and community. We’re unstoppable because of it.” She returned to retirement after the school year and assistant director Emily Rumery will now lead the program.
What is occupational therapy?
Sometimes—due to physical injury, mental illness or learning disability—people face challenges in their ability to do everyday tasks such as cooking a meal, getting dressed, working or leisure activities. Occupational therapy assistants partner with occupational therapists to help clients engage in the activities they value and return to independence.
Union launched the OTA program to prepare students for one of the highest demand careers in the country. OTAs work in many different settings and can earn a $60,000 annual salary right after graduation with just a two-year associate’s degree.
“This program creates a great opportunity for students to get the full Union College experience while working toward a calling—a passion for helping others to live independently,” said Sauder.
“Our faculty designed it for excellence, and it’s my hope our students will leave us with an edge in a crucial field and a genuine heart for the people they serve.”
The long journey to accreditation
Developing a new program is no easy task. The idea began in 2017 when an estate gift opened up new possibilities for the college to invest in its future. After extensive research into programs that would ensure high demand careers for graduates and match Union’s mission, the college administration decided on occupational therapy. Many in the Union community, including alumni and donors, aided in the program with their prayers and gifts, and some alumni have even opened their homes to students as they completed their fieldwork. “It was definitely a God thing,” said Fara Adams, who coordinates field work opportunities for the students.
Faculty transitions and a global pandemic caused some bumps along the way. “Our students have hung in even though it’s not easy being the first class for a developing program,” Radley said, proud of the first cohort. “They’ve stayed positive and been great ambassadors for the program.”
Each student took a leap of faith to attend, knowing the program was still working on accreditation. “I was definitely scared, knowing I could be doing two years of schooling and have it not count,” said Brittany Fast, one of the twelve graduates in the first cohort.
However, the program proved its worth, providing a high-quality environment for learning. “We had a really small class, so we had a lot of interaction with our teachers and each other. Our teachers were always available,” Brittany explained, continuing on to sing the praises of Rumery, one of her professors. “Her teaching style hit everything that I needed personally—it had hands-on, it had visuals. I really appreciate her as a teacher.” As time passed, the concern about accreditation faded as Rumery, Radley, and Adams kept updating their students regularly on the steady progress the program was making.
“I’m very excited to have that process done, and just to be able to share with prospective students that we are accredited,” said new program director Rumery. She’s looking forward to the future, certain that the new, high-standing accreditation will attract prospective students from all over the country to earn a degree at Union.
Union’s first cohort of occupational therapy assistants graduated on May 7 and are now studying for their board exams to receive their licenses and begin practicing their passion. The third cohort of OTA students will begin their general education courses in the fall and their journey through the program will commence in Spring 2022. The second cohort of sixteen students will graduate in May of that year.
“Our class was a smaller group, so it was a very personal education, which I loved. We had amazing instructors, and our new OTA lab and classrooms were just top-notch,” graduate Claire Harless said. “The Union experience speaks for itself. You can tell that they truly care about each and every one of you, and the OTA program was no different.”
by Maria Kercher, a senior communication major