Bill Roberts, a Ph.D. student in the Colorado State University Department of Occupational Therapy, was inspired to learn more about international occupational therapy education by his previous volunteer and teaching experiences in Sri Lanka. Now, thanks to a prestigious Fulbright Student Grant, Roberts is heading to the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago for 10 months to conduct his dissertation research.
Research at USC
Roberts will work with Lesley Garcia, the director of the new master’s in occupational therapy program at the University of the Southern Caribbean to explore how she and USC educators designed the program to meet the cultural and contextual needs of people in Trinidad and Tobago.
“I am thrilled that the Fulbright award makes it possible for Bill to study the intersection between cultural assumptions and teaching, learning and curriculum design,” said Barb Hooper, associate professor of occupational therapy. “Understanding this issue is timely, as many health sciences disciplines expand into countries across the globe and rely heavily on Western-based resources.”
Volunteering in Sri Lanka
Roberts, who is trained as an occupational therapist, spent 13 years in practice working with children with special needs in Southern California. In 2011, he began a journey that changed the direction of his career. He embarked on an 18-month volunteer position in Sri Lanka, which has a shortage of local OTs to address the needs of people there. He worked with a local grassroots organization, Child Vision Sri Lanka, to implement a community-based rehabilitation program. During this time, he came to a realization about his effectiveness as a volunteer from abroad.
“Despite my expertise in working with children with special needs in the United States, I learned that my skills were limited by my lack of understanding of the local culture,” Roberts said. “While working with two Sri Lankan therapists at Child Vision, I learned the power of local knowledge in occupational therapy practice. The therapists’ professional skills were integrated with the unseen values and beliefs that underlie everyday life in Sri Lanka. I learned that local therapists offer more effective and sustainable solutions to the needs of underserved people than an outside therapist can provide.”
Another CSU student, environmental health and Spanish major Rebecca Hermann, has also received a Fulbright and will teach English in Colombia.
After his volunteer experience, Roberts had the opportunity to teach in the OT program at the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka. “I realized that my teaching is heavily influenced by my cultural values and beliefs,” he said.
Roberts became curious about how OT education programs with few resources get started and how educators’ cultural background influences teaching and learning when they go to another country to teach occupational therapy. Roberts had known for many years that he wanted to teach OT full time, which inspired him to pursue his Ph.D.
“I chose the Ph.D. in occupation and rehabilitation science at CSU because I wanted to work with Dr. Barb Hooper, who is a leader in occupational therapy education. I knew that I would benefit from her expertise and from the depth of experience of the faculty in the Department of Occupational Therapy.”
A culturally responsive OT program
With the Fulbright grant, Roberts will research the application of a culturally and contextually responsive occupational therapy education program in Trinidad and Tobago. “I understood anecdotally that new occupational therapy programs with fewer resources use educators, materials and methods from other countries and cultures, and that effective education must reflect the local context. However, there are no research studies addressing how an under-resourced OT education program integrates local culture into a curriculum,” he said.
Roberts hopes the findings of his study will inform future research and best practices to guide new occupational therapy programs that incorporate culturally mindful educational practices.
“Ultimately, this would lead to improved well-being and health in underserved people around the world,” Roberts said.
Fulbright application info
Graduating seniors and graduate students interested in applying for a Fulbright student award should contact Mary Swanson in TILT, firstname.lastname@example.org, (970) 491-2185. The application deadline for the 2018-19 cycle is Sept. 1.