“These last two years have been filled with the highest of highs and lowest of lows, and I genuinely would not trade them for the world,” said Rebeca Naredo.
Naredo describes her time as a graduate student in Colorado State University’s Department of Occupational Therapy in the same way many recent, and soon-to-be, graduates describe their own academic journey. Graduate school is difficult enough with assignment deadlines and final exams without the challenges of a worldwide pandemic.
A first-generation Mexican immigrant born in Monterrey, Naredo began her undergraduate journey pursuing psychology and early childhood education at Trinity University in San Antonio, her hometown since she was six-months old. After volunteering at a local hippotherapy ranch during her freshman year, where equine sciences are used for physical therapy, Naredo knew she wanted to be an occupational therapist. This came with a move across town to the University of the Incarnate Word and a shift of focus to rehabilitative science. After looking at OT master’s programs across the country, Naredo knew she wanted to move out of Texas, and Fort Collins was calling her name.
Throughout the remainder of her undergraduate career, Naredo kept the CSU Master of Occupational Therapy Program admission requirements close at hand, in a binder, so she could keep track of her progress toward admission. After receiving news of her admission to CSU’s M.O.T. Program, it was Fort Collins or bust for Naredo. Now she just had to move 14+ hours from home, family, and loved ones at the height of the 2020 pandemic.
A tumultuous road
For Naredo, the road to graduation was a rocky one. In July 2020, when COVID restrictions were peaking, she moved out on her own for the very first time –nearly a thousand miles away from her family, friends, and partner.
“It felt extremely difficult to navigate independence, mental health, new friendships, and the start of a rigorous academic program, all while working as a daily caregiver for an elderly man in the community – especially through rampant COVID times,” said Naredo.
By October of her first year, she had called her mom to tell her she was considering withdrawing from the program altogether. But her family championed her to persevere and just a few weeks later her partner took the same leap of faith to move blindly to Colorado.
Naredo sought out CSU counseling services, threw herself back into her hobbies, and even adopted a dog. Then she was hit with another curveball. Her rescue pup, Koda, tested positive for heartworms. This led to an expensive and intensive treatment that would last for months. Again, her fantastic community and support back home rallied, covering the entirety of Koda’s treatment costs.
“By no means was this an easy experience, but I have tackled things head-on that I could have never anticipated and grown from these experiences to build my confidence and resilience,” Naredo added.
These years were a journey to replace her inner critic with a compassionate voice, reminding herself to be gentle. Allowing her to treat every experience as a learning opportunity and knowing when to seek out her community when she needed them.
“Forward is forward, no matter the pace,” she said.
Support at all levels
According to Naredo, her Level I and II fieldwork educators allowed her to be honest and vulnerable and truly supported her through her academic and personal experiences. She felt seen as an emerging occupational therapist and as her own person. Naredo admits leaning heavily on Alison Herman, assistant professor and OT academic fieldwork coordinator, who gave so much of her time to serve as more than just an adviser when she needed it.
She also drew inspiration from many of her professors, who continued to instill in her a love of OT. Ultimately, Naredo was continually reminded of why she was there in the first place, and keeping that fire lit within her allowed her to push through nearly any circumstance. Additionally, as classes delved into interventions and accommodations in her coursework, she began to learn effective ways to manage her own academic or personal struggles by learning how to “OT herself.”
Out and about
During her time in the M.O.T. program, Naredo worked as a caregiver for a man in the community, whose family lovingly adopted her as one of their own. On top of that, she was involved with CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition as the kitchen lab coordinator. Naredo also served as treasurer for the 2021-2022 chapter of CSU’s Student Occupational Therapy Association, which strives to offer opportunities for community service and outreach, build community among students, and encourage interest and continuing education on all things OT, including opportunities to attend the annual AOTA conference.
One assignment Naredo feels most proud of having been involved with was a needs assessment project intended to guide an integrated discharge plan for patients at UC Health who are experiencing houselessness. This helped to allow more successful transitions into the community and provide greater health equity and quality of life for vulnerable populations. This felt extremely pivotal in her journey as an OT, especially in regard to her role as an advocate and mutual partner.
“Every one of my fieldwork placements, including Fort Collins Adaptive Recreation Opportunities, Project SEARCH, CSU’s Early Childhood Center, and Integrated Pediatric Therapy Associates, as well as the community mentorship opportunity, were great sources of pride for me, as I felt empowered and immersed within my community to make the impacts I had been longing for,” explained Naredo.
Additionally, Naredo feels incredibly proud to have achieved her master’s in occupational therapy as a first-generation Mexican immigrant, especially when 84% of OT practitioners and 90% of master’s students identify as non-Hispanic.
No time for goodbye
Naredo admits she will definitely miss the beautiful walks across campus, especially getting to see the changing seasons from the Oval, as well as all of the wonderful people she met along the way who shared this experience alongside her. However, Naredo has no plans of leaving Colorado anytime soon. Currently, her plans consist of some much-needed rest and relaxation before studying for her boards. Following the NBCOT exam, she hopes to work as an occupational therapist in home health or at an outpatient pediatric clinic, striving to provide neurodiversity-affirming and strengths-based care.
The Department of Occupational Therapy is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.