Quick Summary: Occupational therapy is a diverse healthcare field that helps people of all ages overcome illnesses, injuries and disabilities so they can live more meaningful lives. While the typical path to this fast-growing profession is to become an occupational therapist, you can enter this life-changing field sooner by becoming an OTA. With lab locations in four states, St. Catherine University’s groundbreaking Online OTA program could be your best path to an occupational therapy education.
A Career in Occupational Therapy Means Countless Opportunities to Make a Difference
You might not know it, but occupational therapy is one of the most diverse healthcare fields today, making it incredibly worthwhile to obtain an occupational therapy education.
Despite the name and its obvious association with the workplace, occupational therapy focuses on so much more than just helping people to get back to work. That’s because, in occupational therapy, the word occupation can refer to whatever it is that gives your life meaning, whether that’s working, going to school, driving a car or any number of tasks big and small.
So yes … For the office worker who can no longer sit at a desk for long periods of time or the factory worker who, through injury, has lost the dexterity needed to work on the assembly line, occupational therapy can help with getting back to work. But it can also help a child on the autism spectrum to navigate feelings of sensory overload few of us can ever truly understand … or a retired couple to grow old in the place they’ve always called home rather than surrender their independence prematurely. Occupational therapy can even help people to better cope with anxiety, overcome eating disorders or recover from an accident or injury.
Take the current COVID-19 pandemic, for example. When you hear stories of the healthcare workers “making a difference on the frontlines,” your mind likely goes to doctors and nurses — and rightly so. After all, they are the ones who help these patients through the illness at its absolute worst.
However, many of the sickest patients face a long road to recovery, one that only begins the moment they are discharged from critical care. Not only must they overcome the physical weakness that comes with a month or so spent largely immobile, many suffer from delirium, lose the ability to speak or forget basic knowledge such as the letters of the alphabet. Some even forget how to walk or brush their teeth. As discussed in this New York Post spotlight on OT on the frontlines, occupational therapy can play a major role in coronavirus recovery.
So how do you go about joining the ranks of this growing life-changing profession? In this post, we’ll be taking a deeper look at:
- The two main educational paths to a career in occupational therapy
- The advantages of entering the OT field as an occupational therapy assistant
- Occupational therapists versus occupational therapy assistants
- How to become an OTA in as few as 16 months without attending daily, in-person classes
- The role of St. Catherine University in revolutionizing occupational therapy education
- How St. Kate’s finds occupational therapy fieldwork sites for students across the country
Getting Into the Occupational Therapy Field
With so many applications for occupational therapy services — not to mention the growing demand eluded to earlier — you’d think there would be an abundance of occupational therapy education programs nationwide. But contrast that with stories about long waitlists to get into occupational therapist master’s degree programs in states such as California and Texas, and the reality becomes apparent.
There’s good news, though. While a master’s degree is the requirement to become an occupational therapist, you can enter this rewarding field much quicker by becoming an occupational therapy assistant — and work with clients directly on a daily basis.
That’s what Michaela, a December 2018 St. Catherine University Online OTA program graduate, did. Having already earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology — the study of the mechanics of body movements — Michaela knew she wanted to do something in the health field, likely with an emphasis on rehabilitation. She just wasn’t sure what.
I wanted to pursue occupational therapy years ago but just with school and work and life, that wasn’t a possibility at that time. When I found out I could do the [occupational therapy] assistant program and not have to go through a normal OT program, I was really interested.
It wasn’t just that she could start working in occupational therapy sooner, though. Michaela was excited by the level of interaction OTAs have with the clients. In fact, depending on the size of the practice, you might enjoy more one-on-one client time as an OTA than as an occupational therapist. Understanding the basic differences and similarities between these two roles makes clear why this is.
Comparing the Roles and Educational Requirements of OTs vs. OTAs
Generally speaking, occupational therapists are the ones who meet with clients initially, assessing their wants and needs (for example: “I would like to be able to get dressed on my own again.”), and developing unique treatment plans. OTs are thus ultimately responsible for seeing to it that clients achieve their goals, and for this reason, they are required to hold a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Compare that to occupational therapy assistants, who are able to practice with an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in OTA.
Typically, it is the role of the occupational therapy assistant to work with clients to carry out these treatment plans, regularly reporting back to the OT on the progress being made, challenges faced and so on. As a result, it’s common for OTs and OTAs to collaborate on intervention plans, especially when it becomes clear interventions must be amended to better accommodate a client’s actual progress or ability to progress.
It should also be noted that while the occupational therapist is in charge of the overall plan of treatment, OTAs nonetheless enjoy a great deal of autonomy in their work. In some cases, for example, a prescribed intervention might be too difficult for a client to start out, requiring the OTA to find new and creative ways to achieve the same goal. In other instances, an occupational therapist might prescribe an overall course of action but leave the ”how” up to the discretion of the occupational therapy assistant.
Despite all this, keep in mind that in some smaller practices, the occupational therapist may handle all aspects of a client’s care. Other practices, such as those in hospitals, may have only one OT overseeing a handful of OTAs.
The OTA Role as a Stepping Stone to an Occupational Therapist Career
It’s also worth mentioning, however, that an OTA is by no means an “occupational therapist lite.” Many people interested in the occupational therapy field choose to become OTAs because of the amount of hands-on time they get to spend with patients. Being an OTA also offers many other perks such as the ability to work part-time.
Others — like Michaela, who had initially considered earning a master’s degree in occupational therapy — are attracted to OTA because it allows them to make an impact in the field sooner. They know that they can always go back to school to earn a master’s degree in occupational therapy should they wish, at which point the experience and knowledge they gained working in the field will give them an advantage.
Becoming an OTA without Relocating for School
Alex wanted to become an occupational therapist. However, living in a small town in New Mexico, meant there were no options that didn’t involve uprooting her entire family to be closer to an OT program. Then she discovered that she could become an OTA without moving.
Now that you’re a little more familiar with the occupational therapy assistant role, let’s take a closer look at how St. Kate’s Online OTA program makes it possible to graduate ready to enter this hope-giving profession sooner than most programs.
Becoming an OTA through St. Kate’s Convenient, Accessible 16-Month Program
Not everyone wants or has time to spend several days a week on campus studying to become an occupational therapy assistant. This was especially the case for Michaela, who was quick to point out that she was able to earn her degree in as few as 16 months while continuing to work thanks to the unique format of St. Kate’s Online OTA program.
“It was flexible, which is nice, because I was coming straight out of undergrad school and I didn’t want to have to not work,” said Michaela of finding the OTA program in California.
That’s because our Online OTA program utilizes a curriculum that blends online learning with hands-on experience at one of our many learning site locations at actual rehab facilities in California, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia (more on that in a bit).
It’s for this reason that we are also able to offer January, May and August starts each year. So if you miss one enrollment date — say, because you needed to complete a few prerequisites or required Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) courses first — you won’t have to wait very long for the next start.
Not Just for Career- and Degree-Changers
While many students in St. Kate’s Online OTA program already have college experience or a degree, it is possible to enroll in our program with a high school diploma. Just keep in mind that you will need to complete additional prerequisite coursework to qualify. When you call, an admissions counselor will help you build out a plan toward enrollment.
As a student in St. Kate’s program, you’ll complete approximately 80% of your OTA coursework online or, in the case of assigned textbook readings and video assignments, on your own. However, you’ll never truly be alone in the program. Through our easy-to-use, online learning management system (LMS), you’ll:
- Engage with interactive learning modules and case studies.
- Participate in group discussions and review sessions.
- Submit written and video assignments demonstrating your understanding of OT concepts.
- Keep track of assignments and deadlines via the built-in calendar.
- Have the opportunity to revisit previous learning modules as needed to master the content.
- Connect with members of your cohort using the LMS’ chat function.
- Attend virtual instructor office hours.
- Take quizzes and practice exams.
The remaining 20% of your coursework will be completed in-person at your assigned learning site in either California, Minnesota, Texas or Virginia (more on these in a moment). Held once a month on Sundays, these sessions include classroom lectures, hands-on demonstrations, and ample opportunities to practice the skills you’re learning in a genuine rehab setting.
Rounding out our innovative curriculum is fieldwork, where you’ll get your first taste of real-world practical experience. As a St. Kate’s OTA student, you’ll participate in more than 700 hours of fieldwork experience, ensuring that you graduate ready to step into your first job.
Fieldwork Ensures You Enter the Profession with Real-World Experience
St. Kate’s Online OTA fieldwork is broken into two types based on the level of involvement:
Level I Fieldwork may only account for 80 of the approximately 720 fieldwork hours; however, it sets the stage for your entry into the profession. Via two, three-day sessions at facilities near your lab site, you’ll get to:
- Observe the kinds of work OTs and OTAs do.
- Gain familiarity with professional practice settings.
- Communicate with clients and other therapy professionals.
Level II Fieldwork consists of two, 320-hour experiences, where you’ll interact with clients directly with supervision and guidance from a registered occupational therapist (OTR) or certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA).
- The first of these experiences will take place in a physical rehabilitation setting.
- The second will occur in an emerging practice space or area of personal interest.
Two Types of OTA Fieldwork
As a student in St. Kate’s Online OTA program, you’ll participate in around 80 hours of observational, Level I Fieldwork, and 640 hours of hands-on Level II Fieldwork. The result? You graduate prepared for your career.
By now, you understand the basics of St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program and how it makes it possible to graduate ready to sit for the National Council Board. Next, we’ll look at how our program makes it possible to study to become an OTA where you live.
Helping Difference-Makers Across the Country Find Their Purpose as OTAs
St. Kate’s is a university of firsts. Not only was it the first university in the United States to offer an occupational therapy assistant program — setting the template for countless other OTA programs to follow. We further established ourself as a leader in the field when we became the first in the nation to offer an online OTA program.
Thanks to this reputation, we’ve been able to establish myriad relationships with occupational therapy rehabilitation centers across the country. It’s because of this that we have been able to not only help students nationwide find occupational therapy fieldwork sites, but also to establish lab partnerships in states where OTAs are needed the most.
St. Kate’s offers Online OTA program site locations in four states:
Jordan’s Story: From Therapy Tech to Occupational Therapy Assistant
Jordan knew she wanted to work in occupational therapy since she was 15 years old, growing up in Amarillo, Texas.
“When people would ask me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I got the response, ‘You want to help people find jobs?’ I was like, ‘No!’” she said. “And so at a young age, I had to try and explain to them what it [occupational therapy] is.”
Jordan had already seen the power of occupational therapy while accompanying her cousin, who has a speech delay, to a therapy session. (In fact, Jordan had previously taught herself sign language to be able to communicate better with her cousin, whom she considers a sister.)
“I really wanted to go to see what they were going to do,” she said. “And I asked her, ‘So what do you call yourself?’ and she said, ‘I’m an occupational therapist,’ and in that moment I knew I wanted to be an occupational therapist.”
Finding an Online OTA Program in Austin, Texas
However, her path to entering the profession that had helped her cousin was hardly a given. Twice, she applied to a community college OTA program in Austin, where she now lives. Each time she met the program requirements but was rejected due to the small number of seats available, and for a time, she decided to put her dream on hold to become a therapy tech, mother and wife. Until one night, when she decided to search OTA options near her.
“My computer literally had dust on it. I had not opened it up or thought about using it,” she explained. “But these thoughts just kept coming through my mind, like ‘look up occupational therapy online,’ so I did it again and all the sudden, St. Kate’s pops up. Honestly, it seemed too good to be true.”
So she reached out to learn more about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program in Texas and is now back in school, pursuing her dream career and excited to get out in the field.
If you really want to help others, occupational therapy does just that. Being a part of a life-changing experience and helping them through that… it’s just really rewarding.
Seeing the Power of Occupational Therapy Firsthand
Aside from seeing the difference firsthand as a child accompanying her cousin to therapy, Jordan’s also seen the difference OTAs can make in both her fieldwork and via the interactive case studies found in our online OTA coursework. These and other experiences have further shown her just how powerful it is to be able to help someone regain the ability to do something most of us take for granted in our daily lives — like washing our hair.
“You may not be able to wash your hair like you used to, but we’re going to show you a way that you can and make you feel good about washing your hair,” Jordan explained.
As for which occupational therapy practice area she hopes to work in, despite having always wanted to work with children with special needs, Jordan is keeping an open mind to the many possibilities OTAs have to make a difference for people of all ages and abilities.
How St. Kate’s Program Makes It Possible to Study to Be an OTA Wherever You Live
By this point, you may be thinking that you’ve heard about how St. Kate’s Online OTA program makes it possible for students in California, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia to study to become occupational therapy assistants — but what if you don’t live in one of those states?
Because labs occur about once a month and Fieldwork Level I consists of just two, three-day sessions (usually the same week as labs), it is possible to travel to these sessions while completing the rest of the coursework online.
Charmaine’s Story: Traveling from Georgia to Virginia for OTA Labs
That’s what Charmaine did. Previously a teacher living in Colorado, Charmaine now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where’s she studying to become an occupational therapy assistant through St. Kate’s Online OTA program.
Like Jordan, she was drawn to occupational therapy because of the diverse applications it offers to help people live better, more fulfilling lives.
“I just feel like it’s my dream job,” said Charmaine, who has wanted to help people her whole life but just wasn’t sure how. “With OT, the appeal is that I could work with people of all ages, which is amazing.”
Unlike Jordan, who found an OTA program location in Austin, where she lives, Charmaine did not find an OTA program in Atlanta that met her needs. Luckily, though, she didn’t have to relocate for OTA school. Instead, she found St. Kate’s also operates its occupational therapy assistant school in Virginia. In fact, St. Kate’s offers OTA lab sites in four cities in Virginia, much like it does in California and Texas.
Like many other Online OTA program students over the years, Charmaine opted to travel to her monthly labs and two Fieldwork Level I sessions. That’s because she knew St. Kate’s offers dedicated fieldwork coordinators to help you find Level II fieldwork opportunities near where you live.
To learn more about the now graduate’s routine for traveling to labs, what the program is like and how she was able to work a full-time job while studying to become an OTA, check out our post, Is OTA School Hard?
Earn Your OTA Degree and Start Making an Impact
Whether you live in one of the four states where St. Catherine University has lab sites or are willing to travel, our Online OTA program could be the answer you’re looking for. Thanks to our convenient curriculum of online coursework and hands-on labs, and our ability to identify fieldwork opportunities around the country, we make it possible for more people to become OTAs sooner.
Give us a call today, or fill out the form, to talk to an admissions counselor about whether our program is right for you.