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“Imagine not being able to talk at all,” said Maritsa Sherenian. “And you’ll have an inkling of what life is like for people with speech disorders. Even telling someone they’re thirsty is very, very difficult. They’re isolated in their own skins. Imagine that.”
Maritsa has not only imagined that, at IC she’s confronted it.
“I had my first clinical placement as an undergrad at Ithaca,” she said. “It involved accent modification with a young boy. It appealed to me because I was one-on-one with someone who needed help.”
Maritsa also formed one-on-one relationships with faculty.
“I did research for a professor who was studying college students’ awareness of autism,” Maritsa said. “Like all the faculty, he was a great help. They all knew when to push me and when I needed a gentle hand.”
Though Maritsa applied to several grad schools, Ithaca was her first choice.
“I knew I’d thrive here, especially since I already knew the professors,” she said. “That was huge.”
Also huge was the revelation Maritsa had once she was in the grad program. It took place in a horse barn.
“Children with autism typically have trouble developing natural speech,” Maritsa said. “One of my professors, Tina Caswell, was addressing that issue with a therapy program that placed autistic children on horseback and equipped them with iPads containing speech-generating software.”
Maritsa assisted with the program. The children, she said, became different people.
“The horse’s gentle gait calmed them. In that better frame of mind, they focused on the iPads and sent messages to their parents—not just about basic needs but also about what they were feeling. Moms and dads told us that for the first time, they could have a conversation with their children.”
The experience was also a first for Maritsa.
“I’d ridden horses since I was 10 or 11, and it dawned on me that an activity I loved could be a treatment option. Before, I’d pictured speech therapy as sitting in a small room with a client. I was open to new directions.”
Though Maritsa’s other graduate school experiences didn’t take place around horses, neither did they happen in enclosed spaces. For example, she spent two semesters working with a 13-year-old girl with Rett syndrome, a rare form of autism.
“Rett syndrome robs children of their muscle control and therefore their ability to speak, but they often retain their cognitive faculties,” Maritsa said. “With help from assistive technology, the young lady was able to convey how she felt. When she let me know she liked to make jewelry, we began making jewelry. Rarely had she experienced that kind of interaction. The world had always seen her as some tiny little girl, but she was a teenager, and she knew full well what was going on around her.”
Maritsa spent the last semester of her graduate program in full-time externships, one with autistic middle schoolers and the other with pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Friends at other grad schools have told me they hadn’t gotten the hours of actual work I did at IC,” Maritsa said. “They were more in the classroom, listening to a teacher explain something, while I’ve worked in clinics and one-on-one situations.”
Those opportunities to observe and discover, she said, will serve her well as she begins her job as a speech therapist at an elementary school.
“Society needs speech pathologists. My six years at IC have given me the foundation to be a first-rate clinician.”
Amanda Schlenker arrived at Ithaca College in the fall of her freshman year knowing she wanted to become an occupational therapist. What she didn’t know was how far an IC education could take her in this interactive, hands-on field.
She completed Ithaca’s five-year, B.S./M.S. occupational therapy program in 2009, and then launched her career in Boston with Thom Child & Family Services, a leading provider of programs for children with developmental difficulties.
“It was a job where I had to be independent,” she says. “My classes and fieldwork and internships gave me the experiences and the self-confidence I needed.”
Her experiences included work at the College’s own OT clinic, internships that put her classroom knowledge to real-world test, an anatomy class where she dissected a human cadaver (an option for OT students), and a thesis exploring how happiness affects performance, which she presented at the World OT Conference in Santiago, Chile.
Now she’s back in the Ithaca area, working at Child’s Play Occupational Therapy where she helps kids overcome challenges to live more fulfilled lives.
“I specialized in sensory integration,” Amanda says. “Everything we do comes to us through our senses. If there’s a problem there, it can throw off a kid’s world. So I come in and help families see how their child is interpreting the world differently, and then I offer ways to help get the kids back on track.”
Child’s Play is run by the IC faculty member who taught the pediatric occupational therapy courses Amanda took at Ithaca.
As for the future, Amanda is full of ideas. She’d like to combine music with occupational therapy, practice in a low-income community, or perhaps return to South America to share her skills.
“I knew in high school that OT would be a good fit for me,” she says. “I just followed that pathway through IC to graduation and into my career. There are so many opportunities. Ithaca’s given me the resources I need to learn and grow.”
>> More on this story: Occupational and Physical Therapy Clinic
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