Updated: Jul 25, 2021
“Sarina Chu is a University of Ottawa student starting her Masters in Occupational Therapy in the fall 2020 semester. She presents her experiences and tips for future students considering the career as she moves forth with her own goal to become an occupational therapist.”
Author: Rahat Sheikh
For many, when they think of a career in the field of medicine, rehabilitation or health care, their first thought is often of doctors and nurses. Some may even think of physiotherapists/physical therapists. This phenomenon may be a result of dated ideas surrounding the field of health care, a lack of exposure to other professions in healthcare due to mainstreaming of media outlets (think about the number of times a medical drama like Grey’s Anatomy mentions anything other than surgery/allopathic medicine), or it may just be a lack of knowledge/interest in this particular area of work in general. Whatever the reasons may be, many individuals are seldom exposed to the other wonderful fields of healthcare such as occupational therapy, respiratory therapy, or speech pathology— the list goes on.
During my time working as a physiotherapy aide over this past year, I have had the pleasure of working with professionals and students alike within an allied healthcare setting. One of those students is Sarina Chu, who will be starting her Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy (OT) this coming fall semester. I was able to interview Sarina about not just the ins and outs of the application process for OT school, but she was also able to shed some light upon the field as a whole. Here’s how it went:
“Tell me a bit about yourself, your hobbies, interests, etc. Let’s get more of a feel of who Sarina is as a person!“
Since I was little, I’ve always had an interest in the visual arts! I remember looking forward to art class all throughout elementary and middle school because I viewed art as a way of self-expression. Neither French nor English was my first language, so when I first started school, there was a language barrier between myself and the rest of my classmates. Art was the only way I was truly able to express myself. I believe that art is a type of universal language that all people can understand. I am also an only child, and my parents were extremely strict, so I wasn’t able to go out and play with friends, so I spent most of my time indoors. My parents strongly encouraged me to take books out from the library, and when I did, they were usually comic books or books on how to draw. I really enjoyed drawing because it was therapeutic. Now that I’m older, I’ve since moved on from drawing and have now taken up more arts-and-craft-type hobbies, such as bullet journaling! In my bullet journal, I would create collages for every page and write an entry or two per page. The reason why I enjoy bullet journaling so much is because it allows me to express my creativity while also allowing me to write down my thoughts. Every month is a different theme, so throughout that month, I would find newspaper clippings, coloured paper, Pinterest photos, washi tape, etc. that would match that theme.
Something else I enjoy is badminton. I started when I was four years old, and I continued until my third year of university. I was the star player at my high school all four years, competed in tournaments outside of school, and I was on the University of Ottawa’s Badminton team once I entered university. I used to train every summer when badminton season was over, and then I made the difficult decision to stop in fourth year because I wanted to focus on my grades to get into my Masters. I still think about it from time to time, and I definitely miss it, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get back into the sport until I am completely done [with] my postgraduate degree.
I want to say more, but I should probably keep the list relatively short, so if there is one more thing that I can talk about, it would be my dog, Gizmo. He’s a mama’s boy. I love him so much. Gizmo isn’t my dog per se, but I’ve grown so close to him that I call him my baby. Technically, Gizmo belongs to my boyfriend. He has had Gizmo since he was a little puppy, but ever since I moved in with my boyfriend, I have taken full dog-parenting responsibilities, and that is why he loves me more. I take him for walks every morning, I always make sure his dog bowls are full of food and water, and I smuggle him with cuddles and kisses. As a result, he follows me everywhere (when I’m home), he always greets me at the door, he waits for me outside the washroom door, and he always lays beside me wherever I am (i.e., the office, my room, etc.). However, he can be a bit difficult sometimes, like when we go out on walks and he puffs up his chest and barks at other dogs to make himself look tougher. Rude. Or when he gets stuck behind the windowsill curtains for the 20th time, and we have to help him get off. Ugh. But we all have our little quirks, and Gizmo is my whole world.
Sarnia and Gizmo
“What made you decide that you wanted to become an occupational therapist in the future? Was it your first career choice or did you happen to get there eventually? Tell me about the journey.“
Originally, I wanted to go into physiotherapy because I wanted a career where I could help others, but I wouldn’t be fully responsible for their life, such as with surgeons. I also wanted a job where I’d always be on my feet, unlike an office job where I’m at a desk most of the day. I had the mindset of going into physiotherapy up until my third year of university. At that point, one of my friends had told me that he wanted to go into occupational therapy, which was something I had not considered before, because I didn’t know much about the profession. [The more he] explained the profession, the more interested I became. I began to do some research and asked people who had relatives or friends who were occupational therapists to gather some more information. I had also just started my minor in psychology that year, because I realized that I was taking psychology courses as electives during my first three years of university and had accumulated a bunch of credits in psychology; I figured I might as well turn it into a minor since I enjoyed it so much! Academically, I felt like I was well suited for occupational therapy because I had a background in both kinesiology and psychology, and on top of that, I would consider myself as a fairly creative individual. Therefore, it made a lot of sense that I would go into this profession seeing as it involves all three components of myself as [a person].
In my fourth year, I got a job working with youth with special needs, and that was an eye-opening experience for me. I was able to interact with different types of individuals on the spectrum and it was amazing. I found myself with a permanent smile on my face when I was around these youth. What I admire most about them is their concept of life – it’s simple. They are focused solely on the present moment; not the past, nor the future. It also brought me an immense amount of joy seeing them get excited and join in when we sang their favourite songs or played their favourite game. This job was one of the factors behind why I decided to go into occupational therapy. It made me realize that helping this specific population is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life because this population of individuals did not choose to be this way, but they still have to learn to cope with what they have. [As] an occupational therapist, it [would be] my job to make them feel like they belong in this world – like they fit in! Occupational therapists add life to days, and I want to make sure that every single day of these peoples’ lives are the best days ever.
“What excites you the most about being in OT/going to OT school? What are you nervous about/do you have any reservations going in?“
I’m really excited about becoming an occupational therapist because I get to meet like-minded individuals who are in this profession with the goal of improving someone’s day-to-day life. In terms of starting my first year in occupational therapy, I am looking forward to meeting all my classmates and building strong friendships and connections, but I am also a bit nervous because the program at the University of Ottawa is entirely in French. That being said, I might have to work a bit harder than the rest of my classmates when it comes to studying and taking notes, considering I haven’t studied in French since the 12th grade. However, I’m sure everything will be fine, because with a small class size, I’ll be sure to make one or two friends that I can rely on if I ever need assistance! Plus, for the month of September, courses are all online, so I plan on recording the ZOOM calls and replaying them if I feel like I missed some important information. I am also worried that if the COVID-19 situation does not improve, my clinicals in December may have to be pushed to next year, which might mean that I might have to do an extra year or half a year so that I can complete all my clinical placements.
“Knowing what you know now about yourself and your own journey through this admissions process, what are some things that you would recommend that others looking into OT should do/what advice would you give to prospective students (i.e., extracurriculars, admissions info etc.)“
I strongly encourage students to volunteer or work at a clinic or hospital to gain some experience working with patients because having this type of experience really makes a difference. If an individual has never worked with a patient in a clinical/hospital setting before, it presents itself as a challenge when they are trying to build rapport between patient and provider. When I first started at the [University of Ottawa Sports Medicine and] Physiotherapy Clinic, I was very awkward and shy. However, with almost 4 years of experience, I developed confidence in my work ethic and my communication skills with patients. I am much more comfortable entering rooms and greeting myself to new patients, and the way I present myself is much more professional. I believe that an individual does not have the opportunity to develop and improve their communication skills with patients unless they are placed in a clinical/hospital setting. The way in which you greet or approach a patient is not the same way you would greet/approach a customer at a retail store. The terminology is also different. At the clinic, we use a lot of terminologies that revolve around the muscles or the modalities that we are using. Furthermore, working at the University of Ottawa’s Physiotherapy Clinic, I have become more familiar with different areas of the body, as well as different set-ups. I was also fortunate enough to do an internship at the Physiotherapy Clinic on campus, so I was given the opportunity to design exercise plans for patients based on their injury, which was really awesome.
“I strongly encourage students to volunteer or work at a clinic or hospital to gain some experience working with patients…“
When preparing for applications, all students applying to Occupational Therapy must first write the CASPer test, which is essentially an online situational judgment/ethics test. I remember feeling really stressed and nervous about this test because if you are unable to pass this two-hour test, your applications will not be sent off to any schools that you applied to. That’s why I strongly recommend that students start [preparing] for the test at least three months in advance – not because it takes three months to prep for, but because you will have to juggle assignments, midterms, final exams, projects, etc. on top of having to prep for CASPer. I started prepping with my two friends in September, but I was so swamped with school work that I didn’t book my test until the first week of January, because I felt like I needed the winter break to really focus on [preparing] for CASPer. That being said, I would also recommend preparing for it with a small group of friends, because from my personal experience, you can gain some useful tips or information from others that you may not have thought of on your own.
“I strongly recommend that students start preparing for the [CASPer] test at least three months in advance …“
So there you have it— a first-hand account of what it was like applying to OT school in the midst of a global pandemic! Some key takeaways if you are looking into going down this route within the field of healthcare would be to get as much exposure as you can within a patient care environment, take care of your mental health via engagement in activities/hobbies and pastimes that bring you joy, and to form good relationships with your peers because I think, as we’ve all experienced before, exams are often better tackled with a good group of study buddies (and usually a ton of snacks).
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Header Image by Markus Winkler .@markuswinkler from Unsplash
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