Master’s candidate Eun Kyung Bae didn’t think she would ever be in a position to help others.
After a fall left her paralyzed from the waist down, the then 31-year-old Korean native said she expected life in a wheelchair would make her always require help from others.
It wasn’t until a middle-aged woman with her own spinal cord injury approached Bae for advice that the student’s limited vision for the future began to change.
“I shared my story with her and explained how I had started adjusting to my new circumstances,” Bae said. “I don’t know how I touched her, but she was just crying and so appreciative of me sharing my story with her.”
After their talk, Bae said she felt something she hadn’t felt in months.
“I just realized I felt happy to help someone else,” she said. “It was then I realized: Oh, my God! What I want is to help people.”
It was with this experience in mind that Bae, who had been working for nearly 10 years as a graphic designer, began looking to make a career change.
“I had an occupational therapist in my home country after the accident,” Bae said. “I was depressed and didn’t know how to live, so she just gave me some solutions, and I was really impressed. I thought this was a good field for me.”
States of mind
After relocating to the United States, Bae sent an email to the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, inquiring about the program and whether her spinal cord injury might hold her back from pursuing an occupational therapy education.
It wasn’t long before she got her answer. In 2013, she began working toward her master of arts degree in occupational therapy and found more than enough support from both classmates and faculty members, including the late associate professor Ann Neville-Jan, to be successful.
“When I met Dr. Neville-Jan the first time, I was really timid. It was a completely new set of circumstances and new experiences, so I was really afraid,” Bae said. “She comforted me and had a lot of advice for me.”
Bae counts Neville-Jan, who had spina bifida, as one of her role models.
“I really want to help people with disabilities live more independently and be successful like Dr. Neville-Jan was,” she said.
Bae also found support from her peers. Fellow student Donna Ozawa rallied their class one weekend to build a wheelchair accessibility ramp for Bae to use when visiting Ozawa’s house.
“I was really impressed,” Bae said. “I was so thankful to them. They’re all occupational therapists already. They may have only [officially] been OT students [at the time], but they’re occupational therapists in their hearts.”
Now, with commencement so close, Bae is looking ahead to the a future as an occupational therapist.
First, she will do her required field-work experiences through the end of this year. She then hopes to begin her doctor of occupational therapy degree in 2016.
Ultimately, she said, she wants to use her undergraduate degree in woodworking and furniture design, coupled with her postgraduate education in occupational science and therapy, to help design interventions that will prevent injuries in the homes of seniors and people with physical disabilities.
“I’m really happy,” she said about finishing the first step toward her new career. “I thought it was impossible for me to help people, but the program helped me to do just that.”