Bite-Sized Stories: Valene Cheah, Master of Science in Occupational Therapy

1. About yourself/what you do

My name is Valene and I am finishing my Master of Science in Occupational Therapy at the University of Alberta. You’re probably wondering, what do occupational therapists do? Do you help people get jobs? We can, but that’s not all that we do. Occupational therapists view occupations as anything that occupies your time, not just your job. That can be anything from putting on your socks in the morning to driving to your family barbecue. For people living with disabilities, these "simple" tasks can actually be very difficult and may require the task to be adapted for them to successfully complete them.

Occupational therapists enable people by providing them with strategies or equipment to improve their performance in their daily activities. This can look like teaching someone how to put on their socks with a long-handled reacher, accompanying someone on a grocery shopping trip, or assessing what is needed for them to return to driving after an injury. You can find us in a wide variety of workplaces, such as hospitals, long term care centres, community organizations (like the Mustard Seed), schools, and private clinics. But no matter where we are, our goal is the same. To enable others to live their best life by illuminating their strengths and empowering them to show the world what they are capable of.

2. What inspired you take on your path?

I’ve always wanted a career that would help people. As the oldest child of three, I’ve grown up as the one my parents depended on to take care of my younger brothers in any way that I could. I was also always involved in sports and valued my physical health even as a teenager, which led me to complete my exercise and health physiology degree at the University of Calgary.

So why occupational therapy? It gives me the opportunity to listen to people’s stories and empower them to see the light within themselves. My first clinical placement was at the Mustard Seed in Calgary, where we conducted cognitive assessments to help people who needed AISH funding (financial aid from the government). These people often had no job, no home, and sometimes no money for a $3.40 bus ticket. One client had felt like they had hit rock bottom, but at the end of their assessment, they were so grateful to have someone who was willing to help them become a better version of themselves that they couldn’t help but cry. All they needed was someone who was willing to stand in their corner. It was at that moment when I knew that I was in the perfect career for me.

3. Challenges and struggles on your path

Believe it or not, academics weren’t really something that I was able to thrive in throughout high school. I got mediocre grades, almost failed one of my diploma exams, but I knew I had to go to university right after high school. A year off was never in my parent’s books and my dad wanted me to be an engineer. But I knew that I wouldn’t be happy as an engineer, so I made my own path. It’s never an easy thing because you never want to disappoint the people who have given you more than you can ever return.

So I started my path to a career in healthcare. Luckily I did just enough to get into biological sciences, but after my first semester, it was clear that I didn't want to study plants and cells for 4 years. It took a couple of years, but I finally got into the exercise and health physiology program and after many 12 hour days in the library, I graduated with distinction.

The next hurdle was getting into OT school, which required at least a 3.7 to be considered. I worked on my application for months and my GPA for years only to be waitlisted. I was devastated. I went travelling that summer and while I was in Malaysia, two weeks before the program was about to start, I received the most important email of my life. “I am pleased to inform you that you have been admitted to the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy…”

From that day it’s been easy. I’m finally where I want to be in my academic career and I know that I’m well on my way to making a difference in the world.

4. What was your family's opinion then and now about your path?

My parents are from Malaysia and I’m a first-generation Canadian, so trying to explain what I do has always been a struggle because it isn’t one of your “conventional” careers. Initially, my parents were skeptical and didn’t understand why I wanted to pursue a career in something that they’d never heard of. Although they never forced me into anything, my parents definitely had their preferences of what they wanted me to do. I can’t help but sometimes feel guilty about not being the engineer that my dad wanted me to be.

However, my parents have been supporting me through everything and continue to support the endeavours I make. I’m hoping that within the next couple of years I’ll be able to make a name for myself and make them proud of the path that I have chosen.

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