Occupied with Service

Pacific occupational therapy students meet with teens at Miller Education Center in Hillsboro to discuss goals and start working on life skills.

From a neighborhood school to an orphanage half a world away, Pacific’s School of Occupational Therapy puts community partnerships at the forefront of student learning.

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Natalie Butz was in high school when her brother suffered a traumatic brain injury. 

“I was with him in the hospital for three months and got to see him working with all the (care providers),” she said.

“(Occupational therapy) was the one—my heart connected with it,” said Butz OT ’13. “I saw the implications it had in my brother’s life.”

From high school through her undergraduate studies at Boise State University, Butz had a singular goal: a career in occupational therapy, or OT.

Today, she is in her second of three years in Pacific University’s occupational therapy program on her way to a master’s degree.

She dreams of working with people who have experienced traumatic brain injuries, like her brother, perhaps in an acute care center or a community group. Because of Pacific’s unique community-linked approach to OT training, she’s already getting a taste of the life of an OT. She has connected with Bridge to Independence, a Portland-based day program for traumatic brain injury survivors. She also has worked with elderly patients in Nicaragua and with rehabilitation services in Ireland—without even starting her Year 3 fieldwork experiences.

It’s that connection to the community and hands-on service approach that brought her to Pacific to begin with, she said. Butz and fellow second-year student Nicolé Wandell OT ’13 recently attended an enclave for occupational therapy students across the country. No other schools were as involved in serving the community as Pacific, they said.

“Nobody had that grasp of community involvement and nonprofit partners in OT. Some said, ‘We’re kind of working in a nonprofit,’ but Pacific sealed that,” Butz said.

“A lot of us were accepted to other programs. What drew us to Pacific was that community involvement.”


In its infancy a century ago, occupational therapy was concerned primarily with mental health—helping World War I soldiers deal with shellshock, or what today would be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder. Over time, the profession moved into the physical realm, and today only 2 to 3 percent of occupational therapists work in mental health, said John White, director of Pacific’s OT program.

The possibilities, however, are limitless.

“We define ‘occupational’ differently than the average person,” White said. It’s not about a job, per se; it’s about any way in which people constructively occupy their time.

“Our primary concern is the full lifetime of occupations,” he said. “That includes taking care of yourself—showering, brushing teeth, eating. It includes work—volunteering, schoolwork, taking care of friends and family. And all the leisure activities you pursue—games, socializing, playing sports—all the productive ways people spend their day.”

In other words, said professors Sandra Rogers and Sandra Pelham-Foster, it’s about doing. A family practitioner might tell a patient to exercise to lose weight, or a psychologist might talk to a client about strategies to avoid conflict; an occupational therapist helps people implement that advice.

“In many therapies, you come in for help and get instructions,” Pelham-Foster said.


Elder care: New online gerontology certificate program helps healthcare providers serve aging population

In December, Pacific conferred its first gerontology certificates to a class of interdisciplinary health professionals. Pacific's first online-only program, the gerontology certification is a spin-off of the School of Occupational Therapy and seeks to improve elder care.