International Invite Turned into a Dual-Self-Directed Co-op

International Invite Turned into a Dual-Self-Directed Co-op

By: Pamela Plantinga | Undergraduate Student, BPK Co-op student
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Pamela Plantinga, BPK Behavioural Neuroscience student, took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to a paid trip abroad and augmented it into a self-directed short-term dual internship experience in Nashville, Tennessee before going further abroad to Europe.

I never thought a Co-op term would actually come together for me. I only landed a couple interviews in spring 2014, as I was quite particular about what jobs I applied for. So when I did not land those jobs I was disappointed. Having somewhat given up, I decided to work locally at two part-time jobs.  For one of my part time jobs, I was a nanny to a nine-month-old boy and a household assistant to his mom, who was a new local university assistant professor from the USA.  In my second part time position, I was an overnight respite worker for a young woman with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Part way through the summer, the mom asked if I would be interested in travelling with her on her fall semester off back to her home in Nashville, TN and to Paris, France for a month of her post-doctorate research (she needed to access the national libraries there for French literature archives). My work for the family would be in exchange for them paying for all my flights, accommodation, and food! I did not take long to consider this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially since I was already feeling burned out from the previous year of full-time studies. But I also did not want to take a full semester off without some aspect of it being relevant to my BPK program and my future career goals of becoming an Occupational Therapist.  I began researching internship opportunities in Nashville, TN and Paris, France, asking some places if they would have any room for an international university student to get some professional development hours in. I spent hours writing (and getting much help editing and even translating) cover letters for the few places I was interested in working at. In the end I was unable to land a position in Paris, but I landed two positions in Nashville. Being international, and because it was too short notice to apply for a study/ exchange/ work VISA, my two short-term internships were unpaid.

Internship 1: The Brown Center for Autism

My first short-term internship was at The Brown Center for Autism (BCA) and I was there for about 32 hours a week for six weeks. Because of my past work experience as a Community Support Worker, I have a heart for people with developmental disabilities and the BCA seemed fitting for me.  This internship was also an exciting opportunity to expose myself to the pediatric population for the purpose of learning therapies that are introduced early on. The interdisciplinary team consisted of Behavioral Interventionists, a Behavioral Analyst, an Occupational Therapist (OT), and a Speech & Language Pathologist/ Therapist.  The team works with children under six years old who are on the Autism spectrum, and their families. I spent the majority of my time paired up with the Occupational Therapist whose ‘clinical area’ was in the “Gorilla Gym”.  The Gorilla Gym was literally a child’s indoor playground and a multi-sensory room. The OT does a lot of work designing individualized sessions that focus on developing cognitive skills (attention, reading, memory), motor skills (fine and gross-motor, such as manual dexterity, balance, and strengthening), interpersonal-skills, and exposure to sensory experiences that are initially anxiety-provoking or that help the student to learn self-regulation techniques.

At BCA, they do not believe that Autism is another diagnosed disability.  Instead, they believe that Autism is a unique difference in how people experience the world around them. As their mission states, BCA seeks to “help realize the potential of [their students]”! This perspective of seeing an Autistic individual as different rather than disabled was profound to me.  I am just beginning my journey towards a career in this field, and BCA’s eye opening motto made me realize that I thought this journey was about becoming a helper and a hero to the less fortunate. I have been humbled by this new mentality, I have revaluated my previously misplaced motives, and I am excited to move forward with a transformed perspective and a drive to help others realize their potential rather than to make myself shine. What further enforced this lesson I have been learning was a TEDtalk titled, “Not Inspiration” by the late Stella Young. She herself was in a wheelchair but spoke against how Westerners objectify disabilities for the benefits or the encouragement of ourselves. 

“I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception but the norm. I want to live in world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people. Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.” 

Internship 2: Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute

My second short-term internship was shadowing various Occupational Therapists one day a week for six weeks at Vanderbilt Medical Center’s Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute.  Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute is a Neurological Rehab clinic—also interdisciplinary with Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech & Language Pathologists, and Support Workers—treating patients who have neurological conditions. The majority of outpatients have suffered a stroke or have an acquired brain injury from a severe accident such as bicycle and car accidents or gunshot wounds. Hospital policy allowed visiting students solely observational experience.  Although I could not do anything per say, I was able to see a lot, take plenty of notes, network with in-the-field professionals, and leave the internship having seen my dream career in action.

Internship Benefits

I felt very privileged to work under Occupational Therapists and see what they do/ can do while still being a mere BPK Behavioral Neuroscience undergraduate.  And seeing two different scopes of Occupational Therapy (pediatric, and neurological specialties) opened my eyes further to what I am interested in pursuing, and which aspects I am not so interested in. At the Brown Center for Autism, I initiated an informational interview with the Executive Director/ Founder. Near the end of my internship, I also asked for some valuable informal feedback from the OT and the other staff.  While I was able to learn from the various feedback on my performance, more importantly, the OT shared solid advice on what sorts of volunteer or co-op experiences I should dip into to best equip myself for deciding whether OT is the field I am ultimately interested in, and in preparation for graduate school.

After my six weeks of interning in Nashville, I worked for a month for the family in Paris, France. During the last three weeks of the semester I did some solo travelling within Britain, the south of France, and to Belgium. All in all, this semester was very multi-dimensional in terms of the types of experiences I underwent—definitely the definition of an unconventional International Co-op term!  What a privilege it all was! 


Beyond the Article

Posted on March 15, 2015