By Patrick Stone
Published May 14, 2013

​Back in 2010, Ainsley Fest was considering applying for the occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass. There was just one minor problem: Fest lived nearly an hour away in the town of Pembroke.

While she was excited to start on a new career path, she certainly wasn’t looking forward to the frustration of a daily commute and the even more dreaded prospect of spending that much on gas money.

Fest didn’t wind up going into the traditional OTA program at BCC. Instead, she joined an OTA class offered through a new program at the college: eHealth Careers.

Although most of the learning in eHeath Careers occurs online, there is a traditional classroom component; students usually meet once or twice a week, depending on the program, mainly to acquire hands-on experiences in the college’s labs, which house the latest in healthcare technology.

A solution to a problem

eHealth was formed in 2010 following a partnership with the private organization Higher Education Partners. This public-private partnership aimed to solve a particular problem the college saw in the southeastern portion of the state: accessibility and workforce needs.

Many students found themselves unable to attend traditional classes because of typical obligations, such as family and work, while others, like Fest, were simply too far away to consider traditional options. It’s the juggling act between life and school that eHealth sets out to remedy.

In Fest’s case, it did just that. Three years after enrolling in the program, Fest and 13 other students will be graduating as members of the first eHealth/OTA graduating class. And Fest is one of three doing so with a 4.0 GPA.

“When I started, I was a 25-year-old student who was working 50 hours a week to make ends meet,” Fest said. “I didn’t know how I could juggle school and work at the same time. Once I heard about the eHealth program, I knew I could juggle both.”

Fest and her OTA colleagues with 4.0 GPAs have also applied for valedictorian of their class.

“Having three valedictorian candidates from one program is very special,” said Dr. Johanna Duponte, OTA program director. “It’s even more remarkable considering these 14 students from the eHealth option are the first of their kind. That is a tremendous accomplishment that speaks to the quality and work ethic of our students.”

Changing careers

Julie Couture and Karen Woodcock join Fest in the “4.0 Club.” From the nearby cities of New Bedford and Dartmouth, respectively, Couture and Woodcock had long histories with helping the less fortunate before deciding on a career change to OTA. However, their responsibilities outside the classroom weighed heavy on their decision to enroll.

Couture used her baccalaureate in communications to work briefly in television before becoming a paraprofessional to serve children with autism spectrum disorders. The flexibility of the eHealth option allowed her to stick with her job while she earned her degree in OTA.

“We all worked within the learning curve that was needed to iron out of the OTA/eLearning format, and I think we’re all better for it,” Couture said. “We’ve taken the responsibility of being the inaugural eHealth OTA class seriously, especially through the program’s accreditation process.”

For many years, Woodcock worked in jobs that highlighted her desire to be a caregiver, including stints in a skilled nursing facility and as a patient care technician. On top of her busy professional life, she also had a commitment that many eHealth students have: children. A mother of two, Woodcock needed a program that was conducive to the work/home/school balancing act.

“At times, I had to balance my commitments to the community and my family with the demands of school, but I had huge support from my husband and a terrific network of kind and caring friends and neighbors,” she said.

Stone works in the communications department at Bristol Community College.

Click here to view the original article.