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A pair of promising Ulster University graduates have brought their experience of volunteering overseas back to Northern Ireland as they take the next steps on the career ladder.

Catherine Wells from Dongaghadee and Susan Carlisle from Lisburn graduated with BSc Hons in Occupational Therapy from Ulster University, at a ceremony at the Belfast Waterfront on Thursday 6th July.

The inspiring students who joined their course from very different backgrounds found common ground when they travelled to Sri Lanka in January 2017 to complete a voluntary placement at a facility for people with a range of mental and physical disabilities, ranging in age from and children to vulnerable adults aged up to 40 years old.

Catherine Wells, aged 31, returned to university as a mature student, having already completed a degree in Applied Psychology. A trained yoga teacher, she balanced her studies with teaching yoga part time. She said:

“I knew that to find job satisfaction it was imperative that my career was focused on helping others. I am a passionate yoga teacher and when I looked into it I found so many parallels between yoga and occupational therapy. Both encourage holistic treatment, aim to improve mental and physical function and champion the importance of leading a life that is meaningful to you, as an individual. The more I learnt about occupational therapy, the more convinced I became that it was a natural progression for me. I knew it had the potential of enabling me to merge my interests and help others from a holistic and client centred perspective."

Susan Carlisle (30) from Lisburn chose a lateral career move into Occupational Therapy based on a desire to help others. She said:

“I worked in a pharmacy for years and loved being able to help others but I knew I wanted a job that was more hands on. When I began to look into Occupational Therapy, I realised that this was the job for me; I could use my passion for helping others to promote better health and wellbeing and support my clients to live independently whilst still doing the things that matter most to them.”

Commenting on the experience, Catherine says:

“We volunteered in a Mother Theresa orphanage for people with disabilities. It was absolutely heart breaking due to the severe lack of resources and knowledge. It was very overwhelming at the start, due to the conditions, the lack of staffing and the vulnerability of the residents. However, as the ethos of the centre was based on Mother Theresa’s teachings on love, there was a sense of community and support between the Sisters and residents.

“In our time there we were able to start the use of a sensory room. This enabled the younger children to interact with each other and gave them the opportunity for play, movement and fun. They were also able to experience sights, sounds and textures that they had never before been exposed to.

“The Sisters in the orphanage could see the benefits of the sensory room and as such, it is still being utilised in the orphanage on a daily basis. I am incredibly proud that residents are still benefiting from the occupational therapy input that we provided.”

Susan added:

“My time in Sri Lanka has really opened my eyes to how differently people with disabilities are treated in different cultural, social and economic environments.

“Seeing first-hand the severity of disability and the lack of resources to support these vulnerable individuals to live full, meaningful and dignified lives was incredibly heart-breaking.

“This experience has driven home how important it is for me to work collaboratively with my clients to ensure their values and beliefs are always considered to provide meaningful, compassionate and culturally sensitive treatments.”

Both students have returned with a newfound respect for the healthcare system in Northern Ireland.

Susan says:

“This experience has opened my mind to the diverse range of settings that occupational therapists could use their skills in, outside of traditional healthcare settings. I feel so fortunate for our healthcare system, we often take it for granted but this experience has taught me to really value whatever resources are available to you.”

As the pair prepare for graduation, they have already taken their next steps on the career ladder.

Susan has secured a job as a disability assessor. She said:

“This role for allied health professionals will allow me to integrate all my occupational therapy knowledge and skills and I am ready to put those skills to use.”

Catherine is practicing as a self-employed occupational therapist and is involved in research regarding assistive technology and holds an occupational therapist role in a mainstream school. In this role, she is integrating yoga into therapeutic interventions, which she describes as “an absolute dream come true” as this was an aspiration when she embarked on the course.

Both students credit the quality of the Occupational Therapy course for their confidence in embarking on their new careers.

Susan commented:

“I felt Ulster University was a highly respected university that could offer me a high level of education in my chosen allied health field whilst still giving me the option of living close to home.

“I wanted to be able to work alongside clients in order to support and empower them to become more involved in what makes them happy and as an occupational therapy practitioner I am able to do that in a very hands on and practical way.”