“School wasn’t my thing. I would tell everyone that math was my favorite because I struggled in it the most and I was trying to put a positive spin on it,” said Zakary Perrin, who recently returned to Union to study in the occupational therapy assistant program. Even though school didn’t come easy, Perrin discovered that when you find the right major and discover a career you love, everything begins to click into place.
Throughout his education, Perrin had been involved in Special Olympics—regional athletic competitions for those with special needs—a door opened to him by his mother, a PE teacher. Starting in sixth grade, Zakary became involved in his region’s Best Buddies program, which pairs special needs students with peers sharing similar interests to build a friendship together. Zakary and his best buddy graduated together from Thunderbird Adventist Academy in Arizona and are still close friends.
“From grade school to middle school to high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Perrin said, “My thoughts were never really on my future, profession-wise.” Although he had no definite direction out of high school, he made the decision to follow his heart of service.
Perrin began his first degree at Union looking to become a firefighter through Union’s International Rescue and Relief Program — but he realized after a year and a half that path didn’t suit him. Then he switched to physical therapy. “I love to work out and exercise. I have a list in a notebook somewhere just of certain exercise goals that I have,” he explained. He graduated from Union in 2018 with a degree in Fitness and Wellness, using it for a couple of years in special education as a paraprofessional.
“Paraprofessionals assist teachers, and usually there are classroom paras and then there are one-on-ones,” Perrin explained. “I was one-on-one with a kid who had cerebral palsy.” He worked with multiple children during the two years he was a paraprofessional at Cactus Shadows High School in Scottsdale, Arizona. Though the job was challenging at times, Perrin enjoyed working with the kids. “I loved them all,” he said.
His experience in special education allowed him to explore a career in occupational therapy. He did a lot of research, including shadowing two occupational therapists. “OTs do a lot with kids with special needs, teaching them how to cook, clean, basically do daily life skills that you and I learned when we were in grade school,” he said. “These kids are learning it in high school.” Shadowing the OTs helped solidify his wish to pursue a career in occupational therapy.
Perrin decided to return to Union to earn his occupational therapy assistant degree, becoming part of Union’s second cohort of OTA students. “I enjoy working with people individually,” he explained, “The OT just evaluates and does paperwork all the time. As an OTA, your responsibility is working with the patient directly, and that’s what I like.” He may pursue his master’s later, but for now he’s happy pursuing his calling as an occupational therapy assistant.
Perrin’s first experience with fieldwork took place in faculty-led simulations held in Union’s new OTA program facilities in the Harris Center. The students gained experience both pretending to have injuries to simulate what their patients might go through and designing plans to help their partners (simulation patients) regain independence. In addition, the professors have begun preparing students for the required board exam they will need to pass to gain their licenses to practice—the NBCOT, a 200-question, four-hour test of critical thinking skills and knowledge of the field—almost a year early.
In Perrin’s prior experience with college, he disliked completing his coursework. He struggled throughout his education with things like math. “I wasn’t big on tests, especially tests,” he said. But during his first degree, he had firsthand experience with the culture of Union’s professors—especially their dedication to their students.
For his first degree, Perrin took statistics from Dr. Ken Osborn, who worked with him consistently. “He helped me with my homework and we met every Tuesday and Thursday for the entire semester. He was more than willing to help me.” Perrin unfortunately needed to retake the class, but does not regret it, since—though it was hard—the experience reinforced his knowledge.
In comparison, Perrin’s OTA coursework might be hard, but it’s something that feels positive to him. He has found himself more and more sure of his career choice as he continues through the OTA program. “This is stuff that I’m enjoying. I’m enjoying doing my assignments, I’m enjoying preparing for quizzes, because I know that this is going to benefit me in becoming the best OTA I can be,” he said. He looks forward to future semesters where he’ll be going on ride-alongs with the Lincoln Police Department to learn more about how an OT would be useful in different settings.
His professors especially have helped Perrin continue to build confidence both in the classroom and in his calling. “I’ll commend Dr. Rumery, she knows her stuff, she’s amazing at teaching, she’s honestly one of the best professors that I’ve ever had,” he said. “She makes it extremely easy to learn this information. And Professor Adams is doing an amazing job at linking us up with our fieldwork. I’m really excited to have her, because she has really good interpersonal connection skills.”
As he moves through the program, Perrin grows ever more confident about a career in occupational therapy. “All the classes I’m taking now reinforce that this is something I would love to do,” he said. He feels he’ll be prepared to take the NBCOT and gain his license when the time comes, and he looks forward to his future as an occupational therapy assistant.
by Maria Kercher, senior communication major