Department of Occupational Therapy highlights diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice at 21st annual Knowledge Exchange

A student discussing his poster with a crowd

The Department of Occupational Therapy at Colorado State University hosted students, alumni, faculty, and OT practitioners on April 28 for the 21st annual Knowledge Exchange event. The theme for this year’s event was “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Impacts on OT Practice, Research, and Education.”

The day-long event, hosted at the Drake Centre in Fort Collins, included a research poster show, Ph.D. student panel discussion, speakers Associate Professor Andrew Persch and alumna Hayley O’Shields (’16), and keynote address by Dr. Jaime P. Muñoz, visiting associate professor of occupational therapy.

With DEISJ topics being heavily discussed nationwide, CSU-OT saw the opportunity to use its annual event to promote these discussions, while connecting the conversations to occupations.

“I believe that the Knowledge Exchange has always been an excellent venue for recognizing the outstanding achievements of the CSU-OT community,” said Rana Alarawi, Ph.D. student. “But this year, I was especially impressed by CSU-OT initiatives to celebrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. This, in my opinion, is a valuable and necessary step toward change and raising awareness of DEISJ issues impacting our profession.”

Throughout the event, speakers used their time to share their own experiences while educating the audience about issues that may not be common knowledge. O’Shields, the preferred communities occupational therapist at the African Community Center in Denver, presented Integrating DEISJ in OT Practice while Persch shared his presentation on Impacting DEISJ via Holistic Admissions and OT Education. Students from the Ph.D. program joined a panel discussion entitled Incorporating DEISJ into Ph.D. Research (and Beyond).

Trusting the process

Jaime Munoz speaking to a crowd, behind a podiumMuñoz, a leader in occupational therapy education and advocate for marginalized populations, spoke to the audience about DEISJ as a whole. He tackled difficult subject matter, prefaced with a warning that the conversation could be uncomfortable for some, in order to raise awareness of disparities in society. Muñoz’s presentation utilized videos from experts in DEISJ, real-world examples, and lived experiences to help solidify his message.

“He reminded us why DEISJ are so critical on both the personal and professional levels,” said Alarawi. “He challenged us to think about them from a broader lens, to be self-reflective, and to understand our personal biases.”

There was another common theme, other than DEISJ, among all of the speakers – the change process. Each speaker addressed the lengthy process that has been, and will continue to be, a part of the progress society is making toward the DEISJ goals. The process has not been easy, with obstacle after obstacle hindering growth, but trailblazers continue to do the work.

“In the field of OT, we know that fixing a body part is only a small part of the journey to recovery, and that the greatest obstacles are overcome within the mind,” said Tej Patel, OT student and CSU Diverse-OT student organization officer. “So, that part is overwhelming because that kind of work is very difficult and takes time, but it is necessary for the long haul, and I hope that we are all in it for the long haul.”

Award Winners

CSU-OT annually recognizes members of its community with awards at the Knowledge Exchange. This year’s awardees include:

Friend of CSU-OT – Legacy Award – Colin Heffern

The Legacy Award is intended to recognize individuals outside of the OT department who made a lasting impression on the students, faculty, culture, and educational practices. The inaugural Legacy Award from the Department of Occupational Therapy was posthumously awarded to Colin Heffern (’10). Heffern, who sustained a spinal cord injury and tetraplegia while enrolled at CSU as an undergraduate student, made visits to CSU-OT for 12 years where he would speak to students on the importance of occupational therapy and the impacts it had on his life. His bonds with faculty and example to students in the CSU-OT community will be remembered fondly.

Distinguished CSU-OT Alumni Award – Karen Atler

This award is presented to a CSU-OT graduate who has made significant contributions to the profession of occupational therapy. The recipient of this year’s award, Associate Professor Karen Atler (B.S. occupational therapy, ’80; M.S. occupational therapy, ’86; Ph.D. education and human resources studies, ’12), is retiring from CSU-OT after 22 years of providing students with support, mentorship, and immense knowledge of occupational therapy. As a longstanding and extremely active member of the OT department’s Curriculum Committee, Atler has had a marked influence on the development of curricula and the content of all OT courses.

CSU-OT Fieldwork Educator Award – Taneal Behm

Taneal Behm, owner of NoCo Pediatric Occupational Therapy, is the recipient of the 2023 CSU-OT Fieldwork Educator Award. Behm, a CSU-OT alumna (’09), has received glowing reviews from students completing their fieldwork at NoCo Pediatrics and has been a committed fieldwork educator for the department.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.