As the demand for Occupational Therapy Assistants increases across the United States, universities are expanding their educational programs to include students who are looking for flexibility to study from anywhere in the country. One program that offers students an OTA distance learning path is St. Catherine’s Online OTA program.
The curriculum for St. Catherine’s Online OTA program is 80% online, but the other 20% involves hands-on learning experiences that include skills labs, which must be completed in person. Taught by certified instructors, students must attend a series of 8 skills labs that will allow them to put their online coursework into practice.
The skills labs cover the six core area of occupational therapy practice, in order to prepare students for the 720 hours of supervised fieldwork experience required to complete the program.
The six core areas include:
- Children and Youth
- Productive Aging
- Health and Wellness
- Mental Health
- Rehabilitation and Disability
- Work and Industry
St. Catherine’s Online OTA skills labs are offered throughout Virginia, California, and Texas. Although students do not have to live in these states, they must complete all 8 labs at the same site. Many Online OTA students travel from all over the country, including Denver, Colorado, to complete the required labs. How do they incorporate OTA distance learning and traveling for labs into their everyday lives? Here’s how two St. Catherine University students make it work.
A mother of three children - 10, 7, and 2, Michelle has a lot to juggle as she earns her associate’s degree through the Online OTA program. OTA distance learning was essential to making her dream possible since she lives in a small town more than two hours from Denver, Colorado.
“I live in a small remote town so I don’t have a university nearby,” she says. “I’d have to drive three hours one way to go to school and I’d miss out on a lot of family time and time with the kids. Now, St. Catherine’s Online OTA program allows me to stay home and study during the day while the kids are at school and daycare. At night, I can tuck the kids in and not lose all those hours driving to and from an on-campus program.”
Traveling from Denver to San Diego
Once admitted into the Online OTA program, Michelle learned more about the locations available for skills labs and she let her admissions counselor know she would prefer completing them in San Diego.
“Once that was my confirmed location, I started making plans for attending my 8 skills labs about four months before the program began – looking into flights and hotels,” she says.
Michelle’s labs are on Sundays for five hours, noon-5pm, so she flies from Denver to San Diego on Saturdays and stays the night with a member of her cohort who lives near the lab site. Then, first thing Monday morning, she flies back to Denver and drives three hours home to spend the rest of her day with her kids and resting up for another week of studying.
“I use the time on the plane to review notes before labs,” she says. “But if I’m tired on that Saturday or it’s been a long day, I’ll make sure to rest on the plane, because I want to make sure I am on point for labs.”
Inside a Skills Lab
What happens during skills lab? Michelle says this is the time where you gain hands-on experience using different equipment and practicing on members of your cohort.
“We get to practice transferring each other, dressing each other, and using the adaptive equipment,” she says. “We also learn how Licensed OTs administer some of the assessments.”
Certified skills lab instructors are dedicated to making sure students get the most out of these five hours as possible, which is really important for Michelle.
“Our skills lab instructor is amazing,” she says. “She’s amazing. She’s very kind and willing to answer any questions that we may have and she’s always there for us when we need her.”
The Importance of Cohorts
While 80% of the Online OTA program includes distance learning, that doesn’t mean you are left alone to learn. In fact, Michelle says her cohort plays a huge supporting role in the program - both in the hands-on portion and when she’s studying from her home near Denver.
“Our cohort is very close,” she says. “We get together and text each other weekly, sometimes daily. We talk over assignments together. We get on Google hangouts and talk through assignments together, and study together. Outside of lab we get together after lab and go to dinner. It’s fun.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in communications and becoming an elementary school teacher in New Mexico, Alex learned that she really wanted to take a different career path. She met a registered occupational therapist (OTR) who worked at her school and became interested in the field.
Like Michelle, Alex lives in a small town in New Mexico, so she was limited to where she could attend an on-campus program since the closest university is three hours away.
“One day I googled online OTA schools and St. Catherine University popped up,” she says. “Right away I was set up on the phone with an admissions counselor. They did a great job of understanding my needs and desires so I applied the next day ready for my next adventure.”
Traveling from Albuquerque to San Diego
Once enrolled, Alex decided she wanted to complete her labs in San Diego, California since that was the closest to her home. The travel involved in St. Catherine’s OTA distance learning program didn’t bother her.
“I grew up traveling and having to study on the road,” she says. “It’s natural, and I usually do audiotapes and keep up."
Every Saturday, Alex drives three hours to the closest airport, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and flies nonstop to San Diego. She returns home on Monday and completes her lessons online for the rest of the week.
Collaboration is Key
Alex loves how collaborative the Online OTA program is, even though 80% of the curriculum is completed online.
“I think the Online OTA program allows you to be creative through the weekly discussion posts with your instructor and cohort as well as the group projects,” she says.
Her cohort plays a big role in her success throughout the program both online and in-person.
“If you’re thinking about OTA distance learning through St. Catherine’s Online OTA program it’s important to collaborate and get to know your cohort,” she says. “It’s a fast-paced program and you need that support. You can also build some lifelong friendships.”
Ready to go the Distance?
Whether you live near one of St. Catherine’s skills lab locations, or have to travel like Michelle and Alex, the Online OTA program can make your dreams of becoming an Occupational Therapy Assistant a reality.
If you’re ready to take the next big step and find out if OTA distance learning is right for you, contact our admissions team today.