In January 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic was weighing heavy on society, students were learning at home, and the Black Lives Matter movement was inspiring demonstrations for equality around the country, MOT student Spencer Rasberry decided to join a group that offered ways to interact on these topics.
The Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD) on the USAHS campus in St. Augustine, Florida, was “a way to bring everybody together and talk about everything in life,” Rasberry says.
“It was a way to share stories between those who have experienced racism and those who haven’t. And educate each other about microaggressions. I saw people get emotional, expressing different views. But I felt comfortable.”
COTAD, a national-level network of OT practitioners, students, and faculty, has chapters on all five USAHS campuses. For this post, we spoke to student leaders of COTAD and also SPEAK, a group that has similar goals but is aimed at students across all USAHS entry-level rehabilitative sciences programs.
“The students’ voice”
“I’ve fallen in love with COTAD,” says OTD student Kayla Gibson, co-president of the COTAD group on the USAHS campus in San Marcos, California. “It’s an opportunity to explore diverse areas where OT can be implemented.”
The first meeting she organized as co-president was a seminar on Black women’s hair given by Rajae Jones, OTD, a recent graduate who had focused her capstone project on this topic. “I thought no one would show up,” Gibson says. “But we had 80 people there. It was super rewarding because the topic is so close to me.” Dr. Jones showed OTs of different ethnicities how the daily activity of hygiene and grooming hair is different for Black women.
Meetings have been virtual but are transitioning to hybrid. Sometimes, students from other campuses or other disciplines will join online. For Pride Month in June, the meeting centered around creating safe spaces for LGBTQ patients and removing traditional gender roles from occupations such as home repair and cooking. In July, the topic was about culturally responsive OT services in tribal communities.
“These are issues we’re going to encounter in our work. You only have so much time in class; you can’t prepare for everything. COTAD equips you to have conversations with different people, such as non-binary clients.”
Gibson first got involved as a liaison between the Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) group in San Marcos and COTAD. “SOTA is so established,” she says. “COTAD is whatever you want it to be—it’s the students’ voice.”
She still holds the liaison role but was drawn to a greater commitment in COTAD thanks to its diversity. The group includes students who identify as queer and Latinx; her co-chair, Dina Habib, is Egyptian and from an immigrant family. “OT is mostly white women,” Gibson says.
“The profession lacks diversity—but our patients are full of diversity.”
While Gibson plans chapter meetings, Habib sends outreach emails and hosts “Pause for Paws,” in which therapy dogs come to campus the week before finals to help students destress. Physical therapy students join in the canine fun.
Says Gibson, “It’s a learning experience for me because I get to practice and sharpen my leadership skills. COTAD isn’t about what you learn in school—but what you learn in life and your job. I get to learn that earlier.”
Preparing for a diverse patient population
“People face barriers to healthcare, and we’re bringing awareness about these barriers, bringing to light communities who are underserved.” So says DPT student Dru Ishibashi, an officer in the group Students Promoting Equity, Action and Knowledge (SPEAK). Co-founded by two Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students in 2019, SPEAK is unique to the Austin campus and is designed to include PT, OT and SLP students.
Explains co-president Kelly Morales, an OTD student: “We create a space where students know that they’re not alone. Being a minority myself, I felt it was right to be part of a club that represents diversity. To encourage multiculturalism and be an example as a leader.”
“I love this organization; everything it stands for is so important,” says Ishibashi.
“It’s nice to have a sense of community among people who have the same goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want to provide the best care for our patients of different backgrounds and races. We’ll be more competent practitioners if we bring diversity in.”
Morales agrees. “It helps us build that therapeutic relationship, and it puts us in a great position to be more successful in our careers.”
Recently, the group invited a diversity coordinator from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) to speak about ways to promote diversity in admissions to PT programs for black and brown students. Next month, the group will host a panel discussion with women of color in healthcare, talking about changes they would like to see in their professions. And SPEAK student leaders recently participated in a training for LGBTQ allies.
Soon after joining the COTAD group in St. Augustine, Spencer Rasberry became the group’s treasurer; he worked his way up to VP and now is president. “We’re all teaching each other,” he says, “and learning about each other’s backgrounds. We try to bring it back to OT by thinking about how we interact with the patient.” He gives the example of an older African-American man who is cooking chicken and flipping it quickly. “It seems dangerous—he could burn himself. But it’s part of the culture. That’s what’s so great about being an OT—you get to know who each patient is, in their cultural context.”
COTAD hosts fun campus activities with other students invited, such as Social Bowling, Field Days (with basketball, pickleball and other sports), and Mindful Beach Day, a chance to relax before finals.
Recent and future meeting topics include cultural competency and religion; practicing OT with a physical disability or neurodivergence; and strategies for reducing stress for OT students and practitioners. A well-attended presentation titled “Occupational Rights & Justice in the LGBTQIA Community” featured the group’s faculty liaison, Susan DiDino, OTR/L, MOT. “Professor DiDino was vulnerable, in depth, amazing,” Rasberry says.
Holding leadership positions in COTAD has been life-changing for Rasberry. “I used to hang back,” he says. “Now I grab the mic and go right at it. I start conversations in a different way. I see the progress we’re making; we’re bringing change.”
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan. The OTD program includes a capstone project and additional coursework in practice leadership and policymaking. Residential (online coursework + in-person labs on weekdays) and Flex (online coursework + in-person labs on weekends) formats are available.
The entry-level occupational therapy master’s degree (MOT) programs at the San Marcos, California; St. Augustine and Miami, Florida; and Austin, Texas, campuses and the entry-level occupational therapy doctoral degree (OTD) programs at the San Marcos, California; St. Augustine and Miami, Florida; Austin and Dallas, Texas, campuses are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) located at 6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 200, North Bethesda, MD 20852-4929. ACOTE’s telephone number c/o AOTA is 301-652-AOTA, and its web address is www.acoteonline.org.