Switching gears – how returning to college as a mature student can pay off

Written by Jean-Paul Hernandez, OTA and PTA graduate and PTA board member, Canadian Physiotherapy Association

I never imagined I would return to school, especially in my 40s, but sometimes life has an amazing way of leading you right where you need to be.

When it came to enrolling at Durham College (DC), I was hesitant. Age aside, I had never lived outside Toronto, my partner and I were only a year into our relationship, and I was worried about learning new skills in an entirely different field.

But everything changed when I met Teresa Avvampato and Laura Maybury at the college’s 2018 Open House. As co-ordinators of DC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant and Physiotherapy Assistant (OTA and PTA) program, they offered insight into the ways I could steer my life in a new direction – one that was aligned with my own values – to help make a difference in the lives of others. This, along with my partner’s support, was all I needed to be convinced DC was the right place for me.

From day one, it was clear that DC’s student experience comes first and the college’s commitment to mental health is supported by an abundance of resources that encourage staff and students to reach out. As a member of the deaf community, I was able to utilize the services of the Access and Support Centre to advocate on my behalf for newer assistive devices (hearing aids), computerized note takers and more time for exams in the Test Centre. I was also able to supplement my income through the student work-study program on campus and apply for grants and bursaries through the Financial Aid office. Without these resources, my experience returning to school full-time would not have been a success.

Our world is rapidly changing, and as health care providers, we must adapt to treating people from all walks of life. The OTA and PTA program highlighted the importance of practicing cultural competency when acting as a voice for people’s therapeutic and rehabilitative experiences. With a focus on clear, ethical relationships for OTAs and PTAs, I learned to apply important parameters to shape how I approach real-life scenarios in a clinical setting.

With graduation fast approaching, my peers and I began job searching, imagining ourselves as part of the multidisciplinary teams of clinicians we had so carefully studied.

But job hunting during a global pandemic was interesting, to say the least.

With very few of us having ever interviewed virtually, it was a learning curve for everyone. Thankfully, the fourth semester of the OTA and PTA program prepared us through the Professional Practice course, which covered resume and cover letter building and interviewing skills to help us land our first post-DC positions.

After working so closely over the course of our program, I was thrilled to see my peers successfully enter our job field. As for me, I owe my gratitude to the Professional Practice course, which helped me land my first PTA role in a physiotherapy clinic just three months after graduation.

In June 2021, I will continue my journey in the PTA field as the newest member of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association’s Board of Directors. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve the profession that has changed my life. I hope to learn about policymaking, advocating for the profession on behalf of both physiotherapists and PTAs, and of course, working towards strategic issues that are extremely important to me, such as accessibility to physiotherapy services for those in the underrepresented BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) community and those who live with sensory and cognitive disabilities, like myself.

So if you find yourself debating whether or not to make a change, trust in yourself and your journey. I am incredibly grateful for the engagement from my peers and instructors at DC who have forever changed my life.