By Christine LaFave Grace

Rondalyn V. Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, is director and founding chairwoman of the new MSOT program at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. The 27-month program, developed under her leadership, will welcome its first class in the fall. Whitney previously was an assistant professor and interim director of the doctoral program in the occupational therapy department at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. She spoke recently with Today in OT about her goals for the program and what excites her about the future of OT education.

OT_News-01Q: Congratulations on your new role and on the debut of Clarkson’s MSOT program — it must be very rewarding to build a program from the ground up.

A: Thank you. I’m very excited about it. I’m pleased and grateful. Clarkson’s motto is “Defy convention,” and they are very interested, committed and intellectually curious about “What do we need to do today for tomorrow?” and “How do we think outside the box and then turn the box outside all over again?”

A lot of times in academia, it’s all about no, and Clarkson is all about yes, always. The closest thing to no I’ve heard is, “Maybe we can do this later.” They’re engineers by trade; they’re a strong engineering and technology school, so they’re really in the mindset of expecting that they can build a solution no matter what.

Q: Do you see growing interest in OT services because changing reimbursement models means that keeping people out of the medical system saves money?

A: Absolutely. I know that the [American Occupational Therapy Association] was approached by reimbursers because we are so good at that. One of the drivers of our explosion right now is if you discharge someone from the hospital and they can’t get their clothes on, they can’t cook a meal and so on, and then they disintegrate as a result of all that, they’re going to be back in the hospital. Again, our toolkit is helping people live their lives, wherever it is and however it is and with whatever they have. I think a lot of the places that’s showing up in the real world is more OTs are moving into primary-care practices. We’re never going to be the person … writing a prescription, but I think our ability to partner with physicians in helping them be more successful — physicians are extremely interested in that.

We fix people with breast cancer; we do this surgery, the mastectomy, and so on, and we send them home. And then I think something like 80% of the women gain [weight], they suffer from low self-esteem, they have incontinence, they suffer from all of these secondary and tertiary problems. … We fix the problem, but we don’t send people home ready to live their lives.

[As OTs], we’re so involved in so many areas that will make the difference for so many people. I think there’s a growing understanding of our role, and that’s exciting.

Rondalyn Whitney, OTR/L, director and founding chairwoman of the MSOT program at Clarkson University, works with Gavin Thompson to develop his muscle building skills, hand-eye coordination and social skills. (Photo courtesy Clarkson University)

Rondalyn Whitney, OTR/L, director and founding chairwoman of Clarkson University’s MSOT program, works with Gavin Thompson to develop his muscle building skills, hand-eye coordination and social skills. (Photo courtesy Clarkson University)

Q: How did you land at Clarkson?

A: We had some turmoil happening [at my previous employer], as everyone does, and I was talking to my mentor, and I said, “What’s going on?” And she said, “Oh, you know, keep your eyes on the prize; 10 years is right on the doorstep for you.” And I got off the phone and I thought, I don’t think 10 years is my prize. My prize is my family and contributing to my profession. That’s really what I’m in it for. So I started thinking about those two things as my primary goals in life, and literally the next day, this [email mentioning the Clarkson position] got into my inbox and it said, “Defy convention.”

I flew up to Clarkson, and it was beautiful, and they were so warm and open and down to earth. The community had come to Clarkson and said, “We need OT here,” and really lobbied the university. It was really cool.

It’s a very different culture, and I think it’s really what I needed to be able to live the kind of life I wanted to live.

Q: What was the process like in mapping out Clarkson’s MSOT program?

A: When I got here, it was really interesting, I really felt like I was pushing an iceberg down Main Street every day. I’d work and work and work. I’d be very tired and I’d go home and feel like [there was] nothing really visual or tangible to see. But little by little, I started to see some movement. It was small at first, but I could see it.

We had to address the question of, “Why OT at Clarkson?” Clarkson is very strong with service — the motto for their engineering program is “Science and technology that serves humanity.” So I thought, well, that is almost verbatim out of the OT philosophy, so I can fly with that.

Because there’s already an established culture of service, I decided the culture of our department would be of service. So instead of saying, “Here’s what we have to offer as OTs,” we would talk with people in the community of Clarkson as well as the community of the area in the North Country community and say, “What do you need from us? How can we meet your needs?”

And then the next piece was to build the curriculum. I worked with someone in instructional design to figure out how could we build a calm curriculum. That’s kind of unusual in OT, but I thought that would help us walk our talk.

Q: What’s a calm curriculum?

A: One of the things that’s calm in an adult learning curriculum is when there’s continuity and predictability. So I thought, I will have five courses every semester, and they will always be the same five courses. So students will be able to predict this is the core they’ll have. And one of the five courses they’ll have is a seminar, so they’ll have an opportunity to synthesize what they’re learning and be able to build relationships with each other and with the profession, ultimately.

And I thought, what would be the five pieces that we would need? We’ll need science as a foundation; we need to have foundational information, like who are our founders and what is OT and what are the theories? And then we’d have to have some kind of experiential opportunity for the students; we’d have to have our seminar. And we’re an engineering school, so I thought the fifth class will be engineering into practice — how can you build a bridge between what you’re learning and the practice?

I’ve always found it frustrating for me and sometimes confusing for students that we put material in a box, so it’s like, OK, this semester we’re learning about psychology; this semester we’re learning about physical conditions. That’s not who we are as OTs. So every semester we have both. That makes a lot more sense to me, because then we’re talking about people and not conditions.

We’ve been really up-front with students we’re interviewing for our first cohort. We’ve said to them, “Look, we’ve worked really hard to build a strong curriculum, but here’s the thing: We really need a strong group of students who will go through it and say, ‘This is not meeting the aspiration that you have, and here’s why’ or ‘We need more help with this.’” We really wanted to have some co-creators on the curriculum in this first cohort. I think we’ve found 20 students who are going to be able to do that with us.

Q: The intersection of care and advanced science and engineering is fascinating. Where will students get experience with that dimension of OT?

A: I can think of a couple of examples. We have a partnership with adaptive kayaking and adaptive skiing because we’re here at Lake Placid. And we have the robotics program here — we’ve already set up for our students to work with the man who runs [Clarkson’s] robotics outreach education program. The interprofessional opportunities with engineering and robotics and then the interdisciplinary with [physical therapy] and [physician assistant studies]; I just think we have a lot of really cool opportunities.

We have a division of our simulation lab — in there we have a car — so we’ll be working with a driving education group here [on adaptive driving].

Q: What are some of your goals for the program in the first year and then farther down the line, a couple of years out?

A: The first goal — I’m very excited about it — is in their final semester, in order to graduate, the students have to design something that will change the world. And I got that out of reading the book “Abundance.” I was very inspired by that, and [by the book’s message that] there’s so much good in the world, and people always focus on the negative, but if you look at the research, there’s more positive, and young minds can truly solve some of the problems of the world. I thought, well, why not ask OTs to do that? Who better?

I think a lot of students coming out of OT programs across the world are poised to make some big changes, and I think our students will be a part of a fleet of thought leaders.

Christine LaFave Grace is a freelance writer.