In 2013, I was a single mom really struggling to get by. I was living on SNAP and the kindness of food pantry donors. In my 40’s with only a high school diploma, minimal work experience, and the constraints of being the full-time caregiver to my child with disabilities, my work options were limited. My earlier life experiences had set a trajectory to the choices and health outcomes that had shaped my adult life. I remember the moment of realizing I did not want to spend the rest of my life in poverty. I’d seen the magic of occupational therapy with my child and was already curious. After learning that OT was a growing field and the likelihood of finding employment after graduation, I looked into the Maria College OTA program. The prospect of going to college felt so intimidating but I did it anyway. I drove 2 hours each way to the weekend program, spending long, tiring days studying, being inspired by my instructors, classmates, and so much new information, always keeping my eye on the goal. Sometimes I would question my decision: Can I do this? Am I too old? Am I intelligent enough? Can I afford this textbook? What about gas money and childcare?
Ultimately, my determination/stubbornness paid off and I graduated from the OTA program in 2017. I started working as a COTA a few months after graduating, part-time with adults who have developmental disabilities (still doing this!), and full-time in special education. After hosting a Maria College level 2 fieldwork student (Bethany Fishman, OTA ’19, OT ’22, woot woot!!), I realized how much I enjoyed the supervision process and was ready for a position with more leadership opportunities. I now work as a program coordinator, providing home and community-based services to adults who use mental health services. I became a certified peer specialist and use my lived experiences to connect and support others on their recovery journey. I transformed my experiences of trauma, violence, and illness into strengths! My Maria experience gave me so much more than a degree. It allowed me to find my potential, my voice, confidence; to experience mentorship and great, supportive teachers; to meet women who were leaders, to rise through the challenges, set the example to my children of perseverance and grit, and to find meaningful, essential work that I love, connecting daily with people who inspire and uplift me. Getting an education gave me choices. It enabled me to start a career and transform my life. What a gift!
–Elizabeth Walkden, COTA/L