Maybe you’re set on becoming an occupational therapy assistant (OTA), or you’re still debating whether OTA is the right career for you. Whatever the case, you likely have some questions about OTA school, like “How does it work?” and “Is OTA school hard?”
Back in April, we talked to Charmaine, a student in St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program, about her reasons to become an OTA. We followed up with her to find out what the program is like and how it is preparing her for her “dream job.”
Now in the first half of her second semester, Charmaine has attended several skills labs at the Virginia Veterans Care Center in Roanoke, Virginia, as well as participated in the first of two three-day Level I Fieldwork sessions at Arc of Central Virginia in Lynchburg. She’s currently taking two courses: Psychosocial Approaches 2 and Rehabilitation Practice 1.
Balancing OTA School with a Full-Time Job
We’re often asked whether it’s possible to work while in the program, and the answer depends on you. Some people can’t imagine working a full-time job and then going home to study after, while others — like Charmaine, who says she spends about 20 hours a week on coursework — find it quite manageable.
“Working full time while in the program is very doable in my opinion,” says Charmaine. However, she’s quick to point out that this is due in part to her circumstances, saying that she has “the advantage of not being married with kids like some of the other students.”
Before making a decision, be realistic about any commitments you have (children, family, work, volunteering, etc.) and talk it over with anyone who may be impacted — especially if you anticipate needing additional support during your time in the program.
Traveling for Skills Labs and Level I Fieldwork
One of the great things about St. Kate’s Online OTA program is that much of the coursework is completed on your own. This includes assigned readings, online activities and discussion posts, and even some hands-on practice (for example, you’ll have several video assignments that require you to demonstrate OTA skills).
However, it’s not all online. Equally important to your occupational therapy assistant education is the hands-on experience you’ll gain from skills labs and fieldwork. What makes this program appealing for many students is that it is very accommodating of learners around the country — not only those students who live in California, Texas and Virginia, where we have skills lab and Level I Fieldwork partners.
Living in Atlanta, Georgia, Charmaine understands the value this arrangement provides. About once a month, she and a friend, who is also in the program, make the six-hour drive to attend skills lab, which always occurs on Sundays. They leave around noon on Saturday and check-in to an Airbnb they stay in each time they visit. This gives them time to complete any prep work and go for a run around town before attending their session from noon until 5 pm on Sunday. Then they make the drive back, getting home around midnight. And they’re not alone.
She says that some students in her cohort live as close as 30 minutes to the skills lab site, whereas others fly in for these monthly sessions.
Connecting with Your Instructors and Cohort
A concern many online learners have starting out — especially those who’ve never participated in online learning — is that they’ll feel alone in the program. This is certainly not the case with St. Kate’s Online OTA program.
“There’s only seven of us, so we got close pretty quickly,” says Charmaine. “We communicate primarily on Facebook. We have a group chat, and whenever we have questions about assignments, we either message each other through that or we text each other.”
Additionally, she says her instructors are accessible by phone or email, and are extremely responsive.
Keeping Organized in an Online Coursework Environment
Organization is a critical success factor in any post-secondary degree program, but it takes on added importance in an online learning environment. As Charmaine says, “It is an online program, so you have to lean on yourself.”
Our Online OTA program affords you a great deal of flexibility to finish your coursework where and when it’s convenient for you — so long as you submit any assignments by their due dates. However, with this freedom comes added responsibility. Absent the daily classes you would attend in a traditional, campus-based program, it can be easy to miss important deadlines or to put off assigned coursework, which can cause you to fall behind if you’re not careful. For this reason, we recommend that you keep a calendar in addition to the one built into our Canvas learning management system (LMS).
It’s also beneficial to develop a routine so that study becomes a habit.
“Monday through Friday, I have my schedule pretty set. I know when I’m going to be studying. I know when I’m going to be doing my assignments,” says Charmaine. “And if I didn’t get any assignments done during the week, then I have plenty of time on Saturday and Sunday to get stuff done.”
Using the Online Learning Management System
Speaking of Canvas, as part of our Online OTA program, you’ll spend a lot of time interacting with our LMS. There, you’ll find interactive activities and exercises, a class schedule, assignment details, your latest course grades, discussions, and a whole lot more.
For Charmaine, online discussions are particularly insightful. In addition to writing discussion posts, students are required to respond to others’ posts, something she believes will benefit her when it comes time to interact with patients.
“The discussions do help me see things from other students’ perspectives,” explains Charmaine. “There are people of all ages, all backgrounds, and it’s super interesting to read about their experiences in the program as well as throughout their lives. Because for many of our assignments, we have to think back on work experiences, personal experiences and how we handled those, and that all ties into who we are as human beings.”
Stepping Up to Meet the Challenge
Returning to the question of “Is OTA school hard?” We asked Charmaine, and her answer might just surprise you.
“I would say it’s a challenging program because it is important to be aware of the time commitment,” says Charmaine. “But I would not describe it as difficult, and that’s only because I was very much aware of how much time per week I needed to commit to school, and I also factored in work, and I factored in family, friends and personal time.”
Of course, as Charmaine says, adequate planning is a significant factor in how difficult you find the program, which is why St. Kate’s offers two paths to becoming an occupational therapy assistant. For those seeking to graduate in as few as 16 months, St. Kate allows students to complete their Liberal Arts & Sciences (LAS) courses during the program. However, we also know that some students would prefer to complete their required LAS coursework prior to beginning the Online OTA program. Charmaine, who works a full-time job, chose the latter path because she knew there would be a significant amount of reading — something she wanted to make sure she would have ample time for.
Make a Difference as an Occupational Therapy Assistant
If, like Charmaine, you want to make a difference in people’s lives, the fast-growing occupational therapy assistant profession could be the perfect career for you. Give us a call today to learn more about how you can graduate from St. Kate’s Online OTA program in as few as 16–24 months.