Birds of a Feather

The UND Department of Occupational Therapy partnership with Wyoming’s Casper College celebrates 25 years. 

On the surface it does seem a bit odd, admits Janet Jedlicka: a distance partnership between UND and Casper College in Casper, Wyoming, for the training of occupational therapists.

On closer inspection, though, the union makes perfect sense. After all, both states are predominantly rural, are experiencing an ongoing shortage of healthcare providers of all sorts, and rank in the bottom five states for population density in the U.S.

So maybe not so odd.

“This relationship is another legacy of the Cliffords,” said Jedlicka, professor and chair of occupational therapy at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Without Tom this partnership wouldn’t exist.”

Jedlicka was referring not to former UND President Tom Clifford, but his son Tom Clifford Jr., and spoke of the long distance relationship maintained by two schools located in overwhelmingly rural states, which this fall celebrates its 25th anniversary.

“Tom at that time was the chair of the Life Sciences Division at Casper College, and had been for many years,” added Breann Lamborn, site administrator of the Occupational Therapy Department’s Wyoming location. “That’s how UND was contacted. Tom had been advising and guiding his students to North Dakota, which of course was his alma mater, for OT.”


One program, two sites

According to Jedlicka and Lamborn, in the early-1990s, former OT chair at UND Sue McIntyre was consulting with Casper College, which happened to employ the younger Clifford. One conversation led to another and what began as a proposal by former Casper College President Leroy Strausner for an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program (which Casper College maintains today) morphed into a partnership for a full occupational therapy program to be offered through UND but in Casper.

Here’s how it works: The SMHS Department of Occupational Therapy—accredited continuously since 1956—established its distance site in 1993. But it remains a single program with a single faculty. It currently offers a master of occupational therapy (MOT) entry-level degree but will offer an occupational therapy doctorate (OTD) starting fall 2019 for students at both locations. While the bulk of the program’s faculty are based in North Dakota, four live in Casper. The two sites divide their students in approximately a three-to-one ratio where 54 of the total 180 OT program students are trained in Casper.

When North Dakota’s Healthcare Workforce Initiative was implemented a few years ago, the program expanded by 18 students.

“Faculty travel in both directions throughout the year,” continued Lamborn, noting also how the travel helps demonstrate to students that despite the distance UND’s Occupational Therapy Department is one program with one faculty unit. “Janet and her team come down here early in the year and then our Casper faculty travel to the main campus annually for meetings and training. All faculty teach and advise students at both sites on campus in a variety of ways. Students at times visit the other campus and attend classes when doing clinicals or traveling. We work hard to meet both the educational and personal needs of the students by providing options and flexibility.”


Good all around

Both Jedlicka and Lamborn say that what makes the partnership work is the fact that both institutions—and their home states—benefit greatly. The partnership has enhanced the resources available to UND’s OT program in terms of faculty expertise and the diversity of the student body. At the same time as it has helped the two states meet the health care needs of their residents. The Wyoming students pay tuition and fees to UND, and on occasion end up moving to North Dakota more permanently to practice after graduating.

“We’re serving both states,” said Jedlicka. “This allows us to bring in more students to the program and not have to hire additional faculty here in Grand Forks. So, costs are spread out among more students at the same time as we generate revenue for the School.”

Casper College benefits also as the partnership provides Wyoming with the state’s only master level OT program. Nearly 300 occupational therapists have graduated from the Wyoming site, helping to reduce the shortage of OTs in the state.

“Without UND there would be no option for master’s or doctoral level OT education in the state of Wyoming. We don’t have enough providers in the state, and this program helps address that shortage,” explained Lamborn. “OT is a desirable degree. I fielded 800 inquiries that first year about admission into the program.”

But don’t take the faculty’s word for it.

“The program was an amazing fit for me,” exclaimed 2012 program grad Theresa Robinett, MOT, a Wyoming native who started her career in a skilled nursing facility in Casper and later began teaching in the OTA program at Casper College—all while ranching with her husband and son. “In all reality, I’m not sure if I would have been able to become an OT had it not been for this program. It allowed me to earn a top notch education, follow my dream of being an OT, and allowed me to balance work with my family and ranching.”

Or, as 2016 grad Stephanie Rehovsky put it, “The program allows students to communicate and collaborate with colleagues in a different part of the country.”

A Park River, N.D., native, Rehovsky completed her degree while in Casper before moving back to North Dakota.

“I appreciated that the program offered me the opportunity to remain a UND student for my graduate degree while studying in a different state,” she said. “My experience in Casper was one I’ll never forget.”


Time to celebrate

Taking only a moment to celebrate its successes, the OT team recognized 25 years of improving healthcare in rural states with an anniversary gathering at the Wyoming Occupational Therapy Association conference in Casper in September. On hand were not only UND’s OT faculty from both campuses but many of its alumni—who often serve as clinical instructors for today’s students.

“We have benefitted from alumni support especially in Wyoming because a significant number of our supervisors at clinical sites are graduates of our program, either here or in Grand Forks,” noted Lamborn. “Our alumni continue to give back to us through their willingness to be clinical supervisors for students. They see it as their responsibility to train and bring forward the next generation of grads—and we can’t thank them enough for that.”

Not content to stand on its laurels, then, the program is looking to the future, finalizing plans to begin offering the OTD degree next year at the same time as it expands its training in telerehab services, identifies clinical sites at which students might conduct fieldwork, and looks for other innovative ways to serve rural citizens especially in both states.

“We’re committed to keeping our program as short—but comprehensive—as possible,” Jedlicka concluded, explaining how some of UND’s competitors have moved to making a four-year bachelor’s degree a pre-requisite to applying to their programs. “I see us, instead, as opening up more opportunities for students by being flexible with our curriculum and our early entry option. That way students get a comparable degree to what some of the private schools offer, but at a much more affordable price.”

By Brian James Schill