University of Southern California
University of Southern California
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Student Ambassador Blog


Work, Work, Work, Work…. Balance in Grad School

, by Kaitlyn

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With everything in life, I like to be all in. Thus, when I entered graduate school I knew that I wanted to dedicate every possible ounce of myself to the experience of being an OT student (because hey, you’re only an OT student for so long!). With the responsibility of being an involved student, however, also comes the responsibility of taking time for yourself and embracing the concept of: WORK-LIFE BALANCE. It is absolutely essential to our health and well-being, especially in graduate school.

Work-life balance is still a work in progress for me, and I think it is something that will continue to be a work in progress, as life itself is so fluid. Here are a few basic things that I’ve learned along the way—via classes at USC and also through personal experience—that have helped me have a decently balanced life thus far:

1. Time management is key. I personally keep a color-coded planner that I can write in and also a Google calendar synced to my iPhone. I quite literally do not know how I would live my life without the two because they both keep me in check. For both, I make sure I write things down by the hour because it allows me to see the breakdown of my day and where there is time for what. I also color code by classes (pink), work (blue), social (purple), and school-affiliated events events (orange) so that I can see exactly how balanced my week is. By color-coding, I can also see if I’m maybe working myself too hard and need to wedge out a time to see my family or friends (it also just makes the calendar more aesthetically appealing to be honest).

Participating in NAMIWalks LAC to help raise funds, combat stigma, and promote awareness about mental health at Grand Park in DTLA!

Participating in NAMIWalks LAC to help raise funds, combat stigma, and promote awareness about mental health at Grand Park in DTLA!

2. Prioritize your schoolwork and work on it when you have free parts in your day (even if they’re small!). It may be 30 minutes before meeting a friend for dinner or 2 hours in between events. I am always surprised at how much I can accomplish even in 10 minutes.

Working at the 2017 OTAC Legislative Reception hosted at Children's Hospital Los Angeles with Region 2 Director, Dr. Delgado, and fellow OTAC Student Delegate, Erwin.

Working at the 2017 OTAC Legislative Reception hosted at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles with Region 2 Director, Dr. Delgado, and fellow OTAC Student Delegate, Erwin.

3. Invest time in things that matter to you. Basically: engage in your meaningful occupations! For me, that’s a lot of things: it means going to a new coffee shop, going to OTAC events to advocate for the profession, taking pictures, spending time with people in the program (i.e. at our OT/PT tailgates and football games), reading a good book, going on a hike, exploring different places around LA, and so on. I just make sure that whatever it is, it is something I genuinely find enjoyment in and contributes to the betterment of myself.

Fighting on at our OT/PT tailgates on UPC campus!

Fighting on at our OT/PT tailgates on UPC campus!

4. See people you actually want to see. It’s true that life can get busy in grad school. What I’ve found, however, is that there is always time for the people you care about when you make the effort. Therefore, I make sure that a lot of my free time is spent with my family and friends even if I can only spare a few hours in my week. A few hours is better than nothing. On a serious note though, nothing releases oxytocin and reduces stress like having a “Frozen” sing-along with my 4-year-old niece and 2-year-old nephew.

5. Take time for yourself. This concept is something I am constantly grappling with because I love being on the go at all times and also have an embarrassing case of “fomo” (fear of missing out). Most recently,  I’ve been spending about 15 minutes each night writing at least 3 things I am grateful for everyday in my gratitude journal. Writing in my gratitude journal has been the perfect form of taking time for myself because it allows me to be able to spend time with my thoughts while also ending my day on a positive note. Even though it’s only 15 minutes, it’s still better than nothing!

Drinking tea is an ultimate de-stressor!

Drinking tea is an ultimate de-stressor!

As previously mentioned before, work-life balance is a work in progress! Some weeks are more balanced than others and work-life balance means different things to different people, but what is important is that you’re striving for YOUR best quality of life along the way. Good luck and happy balancing!



Let’s Talk Fieldwork!

, by Caroline

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I can hardly believe it, but this is week 4 of the fall semester, which means that all of my classmates and I are starting our Level I Fieldworks this week! In my next blog, I’ll tell you all about my first couple days of Level I Fieldwork in Pediatrics. Before I do that, I want to use this blog post to give an overview of fieldwork in general, because many prospective students have a lot of questions about it!

Fieldwork is our chance to go out into the field and see first-hand what we’re reading in our textbooks and learning about in class. In our entry-level Master’s program here at USC, we have Level I and Level II Fieldwork experiences.

Level I Fieldwork is tied in with our 3 immersion courses: Adult Physical Rehabilitation, Mental Health, and Pediatrics. Once per week, instead of going to class on campus, we report to our Fieldwork site for a full day of clinical experience. Then, in the middle of the semester, we get a week off from class and report to our fieldwork all week long. Level I Fieldwork is a great way to get exposure to a particular practice setting, make connections to what we’re learning in class, and develop some clinical and interpersonal skills!

Level II Fieldwork is a more beefed-up, immersive experience than Level I Fieldwork. While Level I Fieldwork occurs in tandem with classes during the fall and spring semesters, Level II Fieldwork is a full-time 12 week clinical experience which takes place during the second and third summers in the program. Level II Fieldwork begins with observation, but as the summer progresses, we are gradually given more responsibility, until the end of the summer, where students usually have their own caseload that they are evaluating, treating, and writing documentation about. At the end of Level II Fieldwork, the goal is to practicing at the level of an entry-level practitioner in that setting.

My first Level I Fieldwork experience last fall was during my Adult Physical Rehabilitation immersion. I was placed at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. At this hospital, my Clinical Instructor (CI) and I evaluated and treated patients on the acute and ICU floors. I had never seen OT in a hospital setting, so managing IV lines, oxygen cannulas, and blood pressure monitors was totally new for me. Also new to me was working with individuals in critical conditions. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the population and setting! I had a wonderful experience at St. Mary’s, and left feeling more comfortable working with patients in the hospital, and with a better understanding of OT’s role in an acute setting.

Celebrating my last day at St. Mary's

My Clinical Instructor had a cake decorated to celebrate my last day at St. Mary’s!

The following spring semester, my Level I Mental Health Fieldwork placement was at Gateways Forensic Community Treatment Program. This was an outpatient mental health setting that provided court-mandated services for individuals following release from prison or inpatient mental facilities. I had a lot of autonomy at this site: I got to lead groups and facilitate one-to-one OT sessions with my own caseload. Erika wrote a whole blog about embracing fieldwork sites without an OT as your CI, and I couldn’t agree with her more! I had a lot of responsibility, but I think this push was exactly what I needed to gain confidence in myself, my knowledge, and my therapeutic use of self. I was also totally unfamiliar with OT’s role in Mental Health prior to that semester, but I definitely saw the value of occupation and OT’s approach for the individuals I was working with.

A group activity at Gateways

This is the final product of one of the activities I did with my group at Gateways. I asked each of the participants to create a puzzle piece that reflected their personality, how they think others saw them, and their favorite occupations. Then, the participants worked together to put together the puzzle, which ended up as a decoration on the wall in the group room!

Then came summer, where I had my first 12-week Level II Fieldwork experience. I was placed at St. Barnabas Senior Services (SBSS), a center for community-dwelling older adults. This site fell into the category of primary care and health promotion and wellness. My fellow-classmates and I were the first students to have our Level II Fieldwork at this site, so it was up to us to do a needs assessment, market our services, and establish OT’s presence at the site. While that’s hard to accomplish in the span of 12 weeks, we did establish new groups (allowing seniors to engage in new occupations), met with individual clients (that we recruited ourselves!), and led health education and literacy presentations (I provided education on fall prevention and diabetes management). A lot of things about my summer were challenging, given the nature of the site, but I definitely grew as a person and as a future OT. I enhanced my Spanish skills (75% of the time I was speaking with the older adults, it was in Spanish), learned about program development, gained familiarity with common chronic conditions commonly experienced by older adults, sharpened my clinical observation and reasoning skills, and practiced with different evaluation tools and practice models. I wasn’t sure how I felt about working with older adults at the beginning of the summer, but I could definitely see myself working with older adults in the future!

Summer Sendoff Party at SBSS

Celebrating my last day at SBSS with my fellow students, my Clinical Instructor, and my on-site supervisor!

So now I have one more Level I Fieldwork placement left, this time in Pediatrics, and then one more Level II placement next summer. As I said before, my problem (albeit a “good problem”) is that I haven’t yet found a population that I didn’t enjoy working with. I love OT because it allows me to connect with a diverse range of individuals, meet them where they are, and help them work towards getting to where they want to be. In class, we talk about how to do that, and we simulate that with case applications. Fieldwork, though, is my chance to really apply that and have a hands-on learning experience. How valuable that is!

Now that you’ve heard about my prior fieldwork experiences, stay tuned for my next blog, where I’ll tell you how my Level I pediatrics fieldwork has been going so far!



Checking in at 13/26

, by Bryan

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From being dropped into the deepest end of the pool with five days a week of Kinesiology and Neuroscience, grasping for air trying to stay afloat completing that final GATE/PICO for Quantitative, to finally gaining some tread as my feet are able to touch the ground near the end of FW Level 2 this summer, it feels like I have been swimming nonstop since June 2016. As I enter into my second year of the program, I definitely wanted some time to step out of the pool, reflect, and share a few lessons learned before starting my final lap (unless I do the OTD!).

1. The faculty genuinely cares about your overall wellbeing. Coming from a large public school, I was much more familiar being another warm body in a 500-person lecture hall, often opting to just listen to a video lecture online. I was taken aback walking down the halls of CHP and being greeted by name from almost every faculty member. It was the first time in my educational career where professors spent time asking how we were all doing and how they could better communicate the lecture material to promote our understanding. With that said, it was the first time our midterm and final student feedback evaluations contributed to the future organization and direction of the courses. Lesson: If you have questions about anything from the material in lecture, what to pursue in the future, or even random advice about life, the faculty are always willing to listen and be there.

2. I was listening to the Harvard Business Review podcast earlier this week and they were presenting a claim that the key factor setting professional athletes, top-performing CEOs, and entertainers apart from others was their mentality, not necessarily their skill level. HBR argued that everyone can achieve a certain skill level but after that comes the need for a particular mindset. I felt the truth of this podcast throughout my fieldwork experiences where it was my fear of failing that hindered me as opposed to an objective lack of knowledge. Whether I was walking the floors of an inpatient acute rehabilitation unit or working on Handwriting Without Tears at a private pediatrics clinic, I was always conscious of messing up. Zooming out a bit, I realized that I was actually completely prepared with the clinical mindset and know-how for every scenario I was placed into, I just needed to take a breath and use the knowledge I was taught. Lesson:  Study hard and do not be scared to apply it!

3. One of the most fun and interesting things I took part in last year was hanging out with the students who visited from South Korea through Global Initiatives. It was so cool to see how OT was practiced and taught in another country and how, in the end, we were united by our passion to simply help others. I learned how to describe OT in Korean to better communicate it to my parents. The most fun part was getting Facebook Friend Requests randomly throughout the semester from students who visited USC. Lesson: OT is so global, start exposing yourself to the profession on an international scale. (Maybe it will help you plan for the externship in the Spring!)

Rounding the first corner of Fall semester, it has been really nice to peek over my shoulder at the hurdles I have jumped so far while keeping my gaze fixed on the hurdles to come. But, maybe the biggest lesson to remember is to enjoy the race altogether.


Aloha Assistance Dogs of Hawaii!: My First Level II Fieldwork Experience

, by Kaitlyn

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Hawaii, dogs, and OT… If this sounds like the ultimate dream trifecta of a Level II Fieldwork then let me be the one to tell you that it is actually real (because I lived it!). This past summer, I am grateful to say that I spent 3 months in Maui with Assistance Dogs of Hawaii for my first Level II Fieldwork experience.

Pictured (from left to right): Ford, Wrangler, and Wesley during a trip to Spreckelsville Beach in Paia!

Pictured (from left to right): Ford, Wrangler, and Wesley during a trip to Spreckelsville Beach in Paia!

This journey began in March of 2017, when I first underwent an application and interview process. By the end of that month, I began to mentally prepare myself for what would be a life-changing, temporary move across the Pacific Ocean to work with one the most inspiring non-profit organizations!

Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, founded by Mo and Will Maurer, is a fully accredited, 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides people with physical disabilities specially trained dogs to help them live more independent lives. I was lucky enough to work under the supervision of my clinical instructor, Dr. Cate Dorr, who is a certified dog trainer and occupational therapist. Between Assistance Dogs of Hawaii and working alongside Dr. Cate Dorr, I knew that it was going to be a summer full of growing and learning.

Walker (dog pictured above) weighed in at about 90 pounds! He was the biggest of the bunch with an equally big heart!

Walker (dog pictured above) weighed in at about 90 pounds! He was the biggest of the bunch with an equally big heart!

In the 3 months that I was in Maui, I was exposed to a multitude of experiences and learning opportunities. Just to name a few, I learned how to care for and train service dogs (my preview to motherhood), participated in Team Training Camp where I learned the skills of a hospital facility dog handler, conducted therapy visits, created and implemented a week-long camp dedicated to children with limited mobility called Camp Bow Wow (which was featured in Maui News!), and of course, worked with patients of all ages and diagnoses implementing occupational therapy and Canine-Facilitated Interventions (a term coined by Dr. Dorr herself!).

Towards the end of the summer, we were even provided with the opportunity to visit foundations and hospitals such as Kapiolani, Queen’s, and Shriners, all of which are located on Oahu with our (at the time) 10-week old puppies! During that same trip to Oahu, we also met with Catia Garrell, one of the founders for Thrive for Life (and an USC OT grad!) to see a home modification project in progress. At the site, we got to see how accessible home modifications are made through an OT lens, which is just another piece of evidence that since the OT scope is so broad and we should never be scared to think outside of the box!

When I wasn’t working or with the dogs, I explored the island and really immersed myself in the beauty of Hawaii (and became really tan while doing so).

On our last day of work, we spotted this huge rainbow and took it as a symbolic 'farewell' from Maui.

On our last day of work, we spotted this huge rainbow and took it as a symbolic ‘farewell’ from Maui.

Out of all the amazing things that I got to do while I was in Hawaii, I will say that working with patients alongside my four-legged friends proved to be something that has profoundly changed my heart. For example, one of my patients broke dog treats in order to improve strength in his hands post incomplete C5-C6 spinal cord injury and another patient with spina bifida took steps alongside one of our service dogs in training to help him engage in tabletop ambulatory level activities. Seeing the motivation and intrinsic desire to do better in therapy sessions with the presence of dogs really opened my eyes to how beneficial and essential this emerging practice is to the profession of occupational therapy.

Jewel and her brother Jasper flew in to Maui at just 8 weeks old! Training began right away (-:!

Jewel and her brother Jasper flew in to Maui at just 8 weeks old! Training began right away (-:!

All in all, I have learned so much about dogs, occupational therapy, Canine-Facilitated Interventions, people, and myself from this Level II Fieldwork experience. Here are a few:

1. Be open to every Level II Fieldwork placement possibility. Prior to receiving an offer from Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, I was looking into rehabilitation hospitals and clinics across the country, ranging from places like Nebraska to the Bay Area to New York. I knew that I wanted to expose myself to the best learning experience while being in OT school and for me that meant opening my mind to every option out there. While those did not necessarily work out for me at first, the opportunity with Assistance Dogs of Hawaii followed soon thereafter. When one door closes, it just means that there is a better door waiting for you.

2. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. I am so far from perfect and I know it. The beauty of being a fieldwork student is that it is okay to make mistakes… so long as you learn from them and have a positive attitude about it! Your clinical instructor is there to teach and support you through these learning curves, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t know everything.

3. As much as you teach your patients, let your patients teach you too. I met the most inspiring individuals during my time in Hawaii and I can confidently say that I am a changed person because of them. My patients, my patients’ families and friends, and the people of Hawaii have taught me the true definitions of what it means to be resilient, compassionate, and happy. Despite any hardships they were facing during that time, they always managed to have a huge smile accompanied by a huge heart.

I’d like to end this post with one of my favorite quotes from a patient that I worked with that had ALS. During our last session together, she told me, “Kaitlyn, sometimes life will not treat you kindly. When this happens—because it will—just be strong and be kind back regardless. You will be doing amazing work as an OT, and you will change so many lives whether you know it or not.”

Mahalo Mo and Will Maurer, Dr. Cate Dorr, USC, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, and the beautiful islands of Hawaii for the adventure of a lifetime.


No OT to shadow? No worries!

, by Erika

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To those of you who are currently in or still need to complete the mental health immersion, this blog post is for you. Many of you have concerns about not having an OT to shadow during your level I due to the limited number of mental health facilities that have OTs available. That’s a fair concern, I had the same one! Fear not, I’m here to say that I had a great experience in my level I even without an OT to shadow. It took a bit of a perspective shift but once I was able to allow the experience to reveal itself naturally, what I ended up gaining exceeded any expectations and fears I had going in.

During my first fieldwork placement during my first year, I was placed at Verdugo Hills Hospital’s geriatric psychiatric unit called Stepping Stones. I had the opportunity to observe both inpatient and outpatient settings which was quite a privilege. As with most mental health settings, there was no OT to shadow. Therefore, I was placed under the supervision of two recreational therapists and an art therapist in the inpatient unit as well as two social workers in the outpatient unit.

Here is what made my mental health experience so valuable even without an OT to shadow:

1. I learned what professions are already well established in mental health, what they do, and how OT can provide additional value. Before this fieldwork, I didn’t know much about mental health. I just assumed that if someone had mental health issues, they’d see a psychologist. Through this fieldwork, I had the opportunity to observe interventions done by recreational therapists, an art therapist, and social workers and how they played their parts in assisting patients across the progress of their illness. I learned that in art therapy, you would choose mediums (markers vs. paints vs. colored pencils) according to the patients’ cognitive levels and abilities as well as the psychological significance of certain colors! I learned that social workers have the authority to diagnose and observed how they engaged clients in group talk therapy. Best of all, I was able to execute OT sensory and cognitive interventions and inform the other professions on what value we could bring to what they were already doing. It was a beautiful exchange of thought across professions and a shared passion of service to this population. 

2. I was able to get exposed to all mental health settings through the experiences of my peers and in turn, reduce stigma that I personally associated with mental health. Since there are few OTs to shadow, mental health is the only immersion in which weekly fieldwork debriefs are set up with peers and a faculty member during class time. I think that most of my classmates would agree that this served as being one of the most helpful resources. We were placed with the same group all semester in which each member was placed in a different mental health setting so we got firsthand experiences of what each setting entailed. What a way to learn! It provided an open platform to not only share in each other’s concerns and successes but gave us a deeper lens into the mental health community. These debriefs equipped us with awareness and compassion, and in turn, helped debunk any stigmas that we initially came into the course with.

3. USC faculty support is top notch. Even with the lack of OT in my settings, there was never a time that I didn’t feel supported by USC faculty. With such breadth of experience, you are bound to find a faculty member that has practiced in the setting you’ve been placed in (inpatient, outpatient, full service partnership, wellness center, clubhouse, etc.). I was able to reach out to faculty members and pick their brains about possible interventions to try out, success stories, horror stories, etc. just to feel a bit more comfortable in understanding OTs role in my specific setting. This experience opened doors to forming relationships with faculty who I now see as mentors that I feel comfortable reaching out to for guidance throughout school and my future career.

4. Developing my therapeutic use of self. Even without an OT, this fieldwork placement was a great opportunity to observe the variance in how my supervisors, as therapists, utilized their own therapeutic uses of self. Everyone has their own gifts, ways of communicating, and backgrounds that contribute to how they practice and work with clients. It was fascinating to see how one recreational therapist Carl*, who I called the Zen master, would engage patients vs. another, Yuko*, who was bubbly and charismatic. They were so different and yet, their concern and care for every patient was expressed and equally well received. This made me really reflect on the fact that there is no one way to be a successful therapist. I began to observe my own therapeutic use of self and develop my own style of practice utilizing my own authentic experiences and gifts.

I know this post was a bit of a big boy but thank you for reading. Hopefully, I’ve been able to alleviate some fears or at least provide a change in perspective on what else you could look forward to during your level I mental health fieldwork placement. At the end of the day, with all your fears, questions, or concerns, know that there is faculty close by, peers going through the same thing, and new and interesting perspectives that lie untapped with your supervising mental health professionals that might provide more insight into your own value and practice with this population. Level I placements are meant solely as a means to observe so OPEN YOUR EYES – you may be surprised by what you end up learning.

*All names mentioned in this blogpost are pseudonyms.

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