Half a Semester Down of OT School – Lessons Learned

Hello, friends! Ah, I haven’t updated you all about my life! I apologize, but I hope all is well! I just concluded half of my first semester of OT school, and I am utilizing my last moments of my week-long break to decompress from all this studying before I am launched back into the second half of my semester. I wanted to quickly pop in here and give you an overall reflection of a few lessons that I’ve reflected on since starting my grad school journey.

  1. Constant comparison to other people? Throw that out of the door. I can confidently say that one of my weaknesses is that I can become susceptible to comparing myself to other people, especially people who are seemingly doing better than me in something that I am actively trying to improve on. I realized that in grad school, for the most part, everyone is as motivated as me to be an active learner and to excel in the program. There are folks who are going to be two steps ahead of me, and that is okay! Because of this false sense of ‘success’ as a measure of our grades that society has established and maintained, I felt like I had to try my best to get an A on everything that I did. However, one of my professors really put it all into perspective when he said that YOUR thoughts matter in grad school and your ability to critically think and analyze the world around you is really what will take you far in the real world. It allowed me to realize that I am here for a reason, and I have a unique perspective that doesn’t have to be defined by the grade that I receive on any assignment. Comparison devalues all of the goals, ambitions, and thoughts that I have to contribute, and I can’t have that because I am here for a reason in this moment! Sure, there will always be people who are smarter or more knowledgable about a particular subject than I am. And you know what, once again, that is okay! So as I continue on with my semester, I aim to throw comparison to others out of that door because why try to be like others when I can strive to be the best version of myself and be satisfied with that?
  2. Self-compassion – center this because times are tough and I am doing my best! I had a friend tell me a few weeks ago that your best always changes, and it is okay if your best looks different than it did yesterday. There were several weeks throughout my program that I felt like I was not feeling ‘productive enough’ because I could not mentally and physically put in as many hours as I usually did into my studying. This was overwhelming me, and I felt like I was behind. However, I realized that I was creating unnecessary pressure to “succeed”, and for what? To be stressed during the process of learning and growing? We can’t have that now! (Sure, some stress is good for you but you know what I mean.) Self-compassion and affirmations go a LONG way, so it is important that I continue to practice this in order to preserve my mental health.
  3. I can do hard things! Grad school is hard, friends. SO FAR (ask me again in about ten weeks, haha), it is not necessarily the content that is impossible to understand or anything. However, I think the hardest thing for me has been being confident in my capabilities, reframing my mindset, and trusting that the process will work out even if I do not know what that process will look like or if the process makes me uncomfortable. Being flexible is a HARD thing to do, and I have to adapt and be ready to take on the next challenge ahead of me.
  4. Your support system matters SO much. Hearing that ‘you got this’ or ‘I believe in you’ is honestly one of the most encouraging things to hear when going through a unique experience such as grad school where I feel like I am being bent, pulled, and challenged always. Personal cheerleaders and folks who know what you are going through or can empathize with you go a long way. They make the process all the better.

So friends, those are a few of the highlights that I wanted to share that have been circling in my mind for the past few weeks now. I am continuously adjusting to this new pace of life, and I look forward to what is in store. More studying, sure, but more importantly, more opportunities to discover the possibilities ahead of me.

Peace and love,

Irene

Three Weeks of OT School DOWN!

Hello, friends! Can you believe it? I made it through THREE WEEKS of my occupational therapy program! I feel like I literally just started my program, but at the same time, I also feel like I have been in school for months based on the content that I’ve been absorbing these three weeks. Honestly, I am definitely feeling the pace of graduate school. Most of my days are spent studying, digesting, and absorbing new knowledge and content learned. I would say out of my curriculum thus far, anatomy is definitely the most rigorous course I am taking. I don’t think that learning anatomy is an easy task to the everyday person, but I honestly have such a supportive classroom setup, environment, and professors that have made learning anatomy a bit less daunting. I had my first anatomy exam earlier this week which I actually did well on so thank God because I literally studied my butt off! I hope I can keep this same momentum throughout the semester, lol!

I can honestly say that I have seen a stark difference in undergrad compared to grad school. I’ve always considered myself a studier and thought that I had pretty good study habits set in undergrad. However, cramming for an exam and then forgetting about the material was more or less something that I made an unhealthy habit of. In GRAD SCHOOL though, SO much studying is required of you every day. Cramming? I don’t know her (at least I do not want to know her). The expectations are much more different. It is expected that you are responsible for interacting with the material that is presented to you so that you can critically think and apply it beyond the classroom. Because there is a lot of content to consistently interact with, I can admit that it has been pretty easy for me to forget to take care of myself and engage in constant small acts of self-care, whether this is sleeping on time, eating my dinner at a reasonable hour, or taking a break and getting some movement in. It is something that I am actively working on, I promise!

I am thankful that I have found resources and a friend group to help guide me and embark on this journey with me. Unlike in many of my undergrad classes, my grad school cohort actually looks out for each other and all want to see each other succeed! I appreciate and admire the cohesive, united, and collaborative environment that is continuously cultivated. Competing for the best grades is literally irrelevant because we are all in the same place getting the same degree, and genuine learning is MUCH more important than a letter grade! This is something that I have been actively unlearning, and it is truly liberating to reframe measures of academic success that society has shaped.

One thing that I think is SO important to my overall well-being and occupational balance is getting that social input outside of school! I realized that after all the studying I have been doing for a few weeks, I missed being social! I really have not explored the area that I am at, so I made it a point today to go out with friends and treat myself to lunch. Social input is very refreshing and rejuvenating, and sometimes it is hard to realize that when you are constantly on the grind.

Overall, grad school has been a time of critical reflection, self-awareness, unlearning, and relearning. I am glad that I am on this journey though and I am anticipating seeing where I am headed!

Peace and love,

Irene

Mid-Week Reflection: My First Week of OT School!

Hello, friends! I’d like to start this post by prefacing that I haven’t gotten an official picture of me in my newly polished scrubs or at my school’s iconic sign. Therefore, I don’t have a feature photo for this week, sorry! (It is coming soon, I promise!) Currently, I am practicing self-care by doing something NOT school-related – blogging! Blogging is an OCCUPATION that is meaningful to me and to be a healthy therapist in the making, I must strive to have an occupationally balanced life so that I can recharge and put my best self forward. So, here I am practicing what I am supposed to preach!

Technically, I haven’t officially made it through my very first week of grad school, but I have completed the bulk of my in-person classes for the week so I will take Thursday and Friday to study and really comprehend all of the information that I have been presented with thus far (and trust me, it has been a LOT of information). So far, I have had such a positive grad school experience! I am thankful that I have been able to connect and establish new friendships with several of my peers because not gonna lie, making friends as an adult can be a difficult and awkward experience. I am also thankful that I am able to learn in person, for I could not imagine learning anatomy via Zoom University (BIG props to those who did so, I give all my respect to you!). I’ve also met some of my amazing professors (and when I tell you they are amazing, they truly are some of the most astonishing, accomplished, and humble people that I’ve ever met). My school also does a buddy system where I am paired with a second-year OT student, so she has been such a tremendous resource in guiding me through all aspects of how to thrive in grad school, ranging from academic success to personal/social balance.

I’ve never heard so many variations of the phrase enjoy the time you have now because you won’t have this time once you start said SO many times before prior to starting school. I am the kind of person who loves to plan ahead and have things figured out so that I am not stressed later on. To sit idly and really just absorb the moment without attempting to cram anatomy before classes began was a bit of a challenge for me I must confess. BUT I am proud to say that I actually DID enjoy the last moments of my ‘summer’ by really just being present in that moment and trusting that I am going to be okay and well-equipped to tackle the semester. Of course, come Sunday, I did feel nervous about what was to come because I have heard SO many varying opinions on what OT school is like.

Some key takeaways that I have processed thus far include the following:

  1. Every experience is different. No matter what people tell me about what grad school is like, I will have a unique journey that I should fully embrace. I can take other people’s perceptions and experiences and internalize them all I want. However, at the end of the day, I am the one that will walk out with this degree, so I should create my own story and trust the process every step of the way without preconceived notions of how I am ‘supposed’ to do grad school. In a nutshell: I gotta do me authentically!!
  2. Grad school is really a full-time job with so many demands and responsibilities. My brain is currently working very hard to adjust to these new demands and expectations.
  3. Time management is KEY, and I am starting to see very quickly how time is precious in grad school. I admit I am still struggling to see how much time is healthily acceptable to dedicate to Anatomy vs. all of my other classes. I utilize a Google Calendar which has helped me schedule out ‘study blocks’ to keep me accountable for my work. My passion planner is still with me always as well. Having multiple ways to track my time is what I’ve noticed has been working for me.
  4. Organization is KEY. I am SO thankful for my iPad because I feel like now I am the organization QUEEN. Lemme tell yall, GoodNotes has become my best friend, ESPECIALLY for Anatomy where I have a lot of assignments that I have to be on top of. I also love color-coding my notes and my schedule, so it has made studying a more engaging, fun, and aesthetically pleasing experience.
  5. Sleep is also KEY. I cannot sacrifice my sleep consistently to finish an assignment because I will always have assignments or readings that I can be catching up on technically. I also must admit, I am guilty of cutting into my sleep time yesterday and I am now experiencing the ramifications of that via a slight headache. I vow to be better about this for sure (I have a no-class day tomorrow so I can modify my sleep schedule a bit to give myself some grace lol).
  6. Affirmations go a LONG way! I recorded a video of my ‘why OT?’ on Sunday when I was feeling overwhelmed with what was to come. It honestly really helped ease my stress levels and center me back into a place of determination and drive rather than unnecessary fear uncalled for.

As I continue my grad school journey, some things that I aspire to keep myself held accountable for is to give myself grace, practice and implement some form of daily and weekly self-care to the best of my ability, and affirm myself consistently throughout this journey even if I don’t get the ‘grade’ or assessment that I wanted to see or something does not go the way that I thought it would. From the few days that I have experienced thus far, grad school is very much not about who can get the highest score on an exam. It is far from that (which I am SO thankful for). I feel like I have stepped into a supportive environment that values critical/complex thinking, a diversity of thoughts and experiences, and most importantly, self-reflection and personal growth through authenticity. I recognize and understand that OT school will not be an easy one by any means and will put me out of my comfort zone in so many ways unimaginable. However, I also am very grounded in the fact that I am in this profession and in this program for a reason that will transform me and the future folks I get to make an impact on.

I honestly am so positively overwhelmed with the amount of support that I’ve had from the community around me, YOU ALL! The amount of texts, calls, financial support, and messages that I have been receiving from people wishing me well and saying that they believe in me has truly been touching and all the more reason to stay motivated and dedicated to this journey. I look forward to seeing what OT school has in store for me and sharing my growth with you all!

Peace and love,

Irene

I Made It to the Grand Canyon State!

Hello, friends! I am reporting to you LIVE from Arizona, ah! I am settling into my first week being here in Arizona, and let me tell you, I have definitely seen a shift in the weather coming from sunny San Diego. I moved here on Saturday with my family after a five and a half-hour drive that mostly comprised of the I-8 East. It was my longest drive that I had ever done by myself, but it was actually a very easy drive (let’s disregard the fact that I got 5 hours of sleep the night before and did not drink my usual 20 oz of chia seed water the morning of). I literally saw the temperature climb from high 60s to low 100s as I continued my journey east. I tried to not use my air conditioner to see how I could handle the heat since Arizona is notoriously known for being HOT, but this Cali girl couldn’t do it as she passed through Yuma (it was already 104 degrees there!). I already caught myself saying ‘Oh, it is only 100 degrees today, not that bad!’ whereas in California, I’d start whining if it hit 90 degrees, lol.

Besides the heat, which actually has been more manageable than I thought since 100-105 degrees is not an anomaly when living in Escondido in the summer, Arizona has been treating me well! Where I am located has very familiar stores such as Trader Joes, Ross, and Aldi, so I am truly good to go! Some things that I have noticed while being in Arizona for four days now include the following:

  1. Arizona is well-equipped to handle the heat. I really do forget that it is actually 111 degrees outside (which it has been the past few days) since I am mostly indoors with nice AC systems.
  2. Folks drive a bit recklessly here, either going too fast or too slow. Maybe it is because I am trying to be a cautious driver since I am not used to the traffic laws here or I am a bit more hyperaware of the road. But I definitely got cut off on the freeway more frequently than I typically do in San Diego.
  3. It is quite dusty here and little rocks can hit and cause a crack in your windshield easily.
  4. Black folks seem to be scattered everywhere, but there is no concentration of Black neighborhoods that I have heard of nor seen yet.
  5. There are ‘cooling stations’ commonly located around the town where sprays of mist are continuously spraying to help keep people cool. I saw this at the gas station and at a few restaurants that I passed by!
  6. Mosquitos around this area are very small but still make my arm swell terribly! I got bit by chilling at the poolside this past weekend and did not even notice it until I started itching vigorously.
  7. GAS IS CHEAPER HERE THAN IN CA. Before I came to Arizona, the cheapest gas station I could find was $3.89, and I was saying that was a good price compared to the +$4.00 I had been seeing everywhere else. In the area that I’m at, I have been finding a good range of $2.83-$3.20 ($3.20 being the most expensive I have witnessed). Even $3.20 is too expensive for me now, lol.

So far, my transition has been pretty smooth. The first day was a bit rough for me because I was physically and mentally tired/overwhelmed (I think a lot of it had to do with a lack of proper hydration), so I did not feel like I could fully absorb the novelty of being in a different state. After the first day, I have had positive experiences with the people that I have briefly met, ranging from neighbors to current OT students at my school. I finally have my own room too, which I am still trying to customize and personalize. I went to Ross the other day and got some cute (and cheap) room decor such as a comfy rug, a lamp, and artwork for my empty walls. After I set up the lighting and aesthetic of my room, I think I will finally feel settled in officially! I will have to change my license plate to an Arizona one, so I am gonna blend in really soon into an ‘Arizonian’ (sorry, Cali folks! My heart will always be in Cali, but my car is definitely in Arizona, haha).

I’ve already entered the grad school grind by doing some assigned readings. I am trying to establish a good morning routine that will set a positive tone for my day. Does anyone have a great morning routine that they’d like to share? If so, shoot me a message! I am trying to get into the habit of waking up at 5:30 am (maybe 6:00 pm, realistically) to start off my day so that my mind is equipped to take on the busy day ahead of me.

This is my quick check-in! Stay tuned to my grad school adventures coming up very shortly! (I start on Monday, can you believe it? Because I am still processing that).

Peace and love,

Irene

Transitions, Transitions, Transitions!

Hello, friends! Tomorrow is the big day! Tomorrow is the day that I officially start this new chapter of my life – grad school! This is my last post I am writing from California, ah! It is honestly quite wild that the time has already come. I feel like it has been forever since I applied and got accepted into OT school, but time has seem to speed to this moment. People told me that the time will just pass you by but I didn’t really believe it until I spent it frantically packing clothes and decluttering my room this week, lol.

I am feeling all kinds of emotions right now – excited, apprehensive, and tired (because I have been procrastinating on my packing lol). I ended my job as a behavioral therapist for over two years just last week, and let me tell you that it was such a bittersweet moment! I am happy to have known that I was able to form powerful bonds with the kiddos that I worked with, but it is also sad to see them go. I did learn quite a bit that I will cherish and utilize as I evolve into a future clinician.

Honestly, I really do not know what to expect, and I think that the hardest part about any change in life includes not knowing what is to come. I have been preparing myself as much as I can for graduate school because I am intrinsically a planner at heart. At the same time, I think I’ve stepped back a bit on that because I just want to follow the process and let this journey unravel organically. Folks have told me that I should use this free time that I have to enjoy it with my family and friends and also establish a good self-care routine because I will most definitely need to ground and re-center myself when times get difficult and overwhelming. I have been enjoying watching endless DCOMs with my sisters (I highly recommend The Cheetah Girls series) and visiting family friends all over SoCal.

I honestly am so thankful and so appreciative of the endless support of my community around me. I feel so entirely blessed, from all of the generous donations on my GoFundMe to the sweet messages that have affirmed my abilities to succeed and make the impact in the world that I’ve been wanting to for so long now. The journey to getting to this point was not an easy one at any point, for I learned that you really do not have control over life’s events. However, Knowing that God has always and will always literally be with me no matter how much I try to figure it out by myself is what gives me inner peace and hope for the future. By next week, I will no longer be a pre-OT student but I will officially be a doctor of occupational therapy student who is ready to transform into becoming a loving, caring, and impactful OT! 

This post was kind of all over the place, I know. That is how I am currently feeling right now! I am really excited to share with you the highs, lows, and in-betweens of my OT school journey! I will try to be as consistent as possible, but you know, grad school will be a busy time so I hope you give me some grace!

Peace and love,

Irene

Reflections of a Congolese-American Gal

Hello, friends! I recently traveled to Colorado for a family member’s wedding. There, I was encapsulated by the intrinsic beauty of the Congolese community from all over the country. I couldn’t help feeling both joy from witnessing the Congolese cultural celebrations radiating love as well as sorrow that I was not very accustomed to these traditions. Hearing the melodic Swahili language all around me without fluently knowing what was spoken made me feel a bit out of place despite being surrounded by people who looked like me and shared the same culture. I hesitated on confidently greeting folks with the welcoming phrase, jambo — for once a conversation arose, I would succumb to ending the conversation with my broken Swahili go-to phrase: Ninajua Kiswahili kidogo. Though normally a large gathering of native Swahili-speakers would bring up my childhood insecurities revolving around my ethnic identity, I felt an inner peace knowing that first, my siblings were there to share the same feelings and experiences as me; and second, the energy of the Congolese people around me was supportive, non-judgmental, and lighthearted. I’d have about $100 sitting in my bank if I made a bet to collect $1 for every time I heard someone say, “You don’t speak Swahili?” from my trip. However, I surprisingly did not feel the same embarrassment and remorse that I’ve been acquainted with for a long time. Despite our differences in our native tongue, my Congolese card didn’t seem to be fully revoked and I was able to form many connections with folks who accepted me for me.

Perhaps I can share some context to the above anecdote. Throughout my upbringing, I had a difficult time finding where I fit in the spectrum of my “Congoleseness.” Sure, I am an American kid (as my parents sometimes say) on my birth certificate, but overall, I don’t really think I can classify my home experiences as synonymous to the “American” culture. Believe it or not, the English pronunciation of my name as “Irene” (pronounced EYE-reen) is mainly recognized at school and church. It is rare that my siblings, parents, or close family and friends call me EYE-reen. Fun fact: My given name is truly the French pronunciation, “Irène”, and I go by other variations of this pronunciation in my household (ex. EE-reh-neh or EE-rehn). I mispronounced several English words and didn’t know many social American norms until being immersed in them as I grew older. I felt as if to my American peers, I was never really “American enough”, and to my Congolese peers, I was never really “Congolese enough.” However, as a college student, I was finally surrounded by people who were like me – 1st generation of folks born in America with African immigrant parents who did not necessarily pick up fluency of their parents’ mother tongue but have also been ostracized for being “not American enough.” Sharing the woes and triumphs of our co-existing identities helped me come to terms with the beauty of holding both identities since I technically am both (hence, my Instagram bio includes the tagline “Congolese-American”, if you didn’t notice!). I mostly unlearned that Congoleseness is not merely tied to language. It encompasses a multitude of other aspects that interweave beautifully with each other. My experiences are valid and unique, so I learned that no one could ultimately define who I am but myself.

The trip to Colorado inspired me once again to explore this hole that I have been feeling for so many years from truly fitting into and being accepted by the Congolese community due to my non-fluency of the Swahili and other native languages. I decided several years ago that my Congolese card is irrevocable because I am who I am. However, to enhance my experiences and connections with other Congolese people who feel more comfortable conversing in their native tongue, I will make it a point to get out of my comfort zone, give myself grace for any lingering resentment and embarrassment that previously consumed me, and just go for it! My sisters and I made a pack to self-teach Swahili with the assistance of our parents and explore this journey on our own. It will be one that I believe will help me connect with people in ways that I could not have before. Most importantly, it will help me embrace the intersection of my Congolese and American co-identities. Anyway, kwaheri, marafiki! Tutaonana!

Peace and love,

Irene

Healthcare Equity and OT (P.S. Happy OT Month!)

Hello, friends! Happy OT Month! Did yall know that April is Occupational Therapy Month? Though I am technically not an active student yet nor a practitioner, I still think I can contribute to this space! This month is a month celebrating, honoring, and advocating for occupational therapy (OT) in all aspects. One aspect that I hope to be an advocate for as a soon-to-be student and a future practitioner is diversifying the field of OT to ensure that it is an equitable and inclusive profession and service for all people. Why am I so passionate about healthcare equity? Well, if you haven’t noticed yet, I am a Black woman entering this profession – already placing me among the 5% of us who are OTs. Because I am quite underrepresented myself, I would hope to be passionate about ensuring that people who look like me know more about OT and have the same access to OT services just as other non-underrepresented groups do.

I’ve always found myself in spaces where my Blackness was not represented adequately – in my schools, at my church, and within my healthcare experiences. Believe it or not, I often questioned my passion to pursue an advanced healthcare career. My ethnic identity and socioeconomic status appeared to be incompatible with my career aspirations due to the lack of representation I had been continuously acquainted with. During my volunteering in healthcare settings, I rarely saw healthcare professionals, let alone occupational therapists, that looked like me or came from a similar upbringing as myself. Don’t get me wrong – I learned a great deal of information from the OTs I shadowed during my shadowing days, and they were all very kind and willing to teach. However, there were times in which I found it quite challenging or essentially impossible to talk about how my identities can be an asset to the way that I navigate the profession to best support my future patients. There is just something a bit more special that comes with seeing my identity being represented in spaces important to me.

During my study abroad experience in Ghana, I quickly recognized the importance of advocating for this profession – particularly in places that do not traditionally have access to available OT services in the community. The organization that I interned for (an organization for people with various disabilities) did not have any occupational therapy, let alone other rehabilitative therapy services present. I witnessed how so many of the organization’s residents could have benefitted from OT, ultimately promoting greater independence and improved quality of life for them. Interning and reflecting on my experience at this organization enabled me to critically analyze the power of stigma, misinformation, and lack of resources as barriers that prohibit many underserved communities such as in Ghana and my respective communities from receiving the transformative power of occupational therapy. That is why I believe that promoting the profession through an inclusive, multi-perspective framework is so important to ensure that folks like my companions in Ghana, my home community, and many others can also receive OT to better experience a life of independence and fulfillment.

Again, I know I am not a practitioner or even a student yet, but I am comforted to know that there are already organizations out there that also encapsulate the vision and goals that I hope to contribute to the field of occupational therapy. For instance, an organization that I discovered later last year called the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD) has been such an instrumental resource that has educated me on pertinent issues around healthcare inequities, systemic racism, and occupational injustice apparent in our field. Being a COTAD mentee myself has reaffirmed the intersectional beauty of holding my underrepresented identities within the field of occupational therapy. I hope that with a coalition of OT students, practitioners, and other folks involved, we can revolutionize the healthcare field in ways that will better promote the profession inclusively and equitably.

Peace and love,

Irene

Goodbye, Student Loans (for now)!

Hello, friends! Do you know what has been on my mind a lot lately? Money has! In particular, the words debt and student loans have been buzzing around in my head for the longest time because I am currently applying for graduate school scholarships — financing a graduate education can be a stressful thing! The reality of student loans is not new for me. Like most college students have experienced, the cost of attending a four-year university today is astronomical and often requires the infamous student loans to pay our way through college. Fun fact: the average student loan debt as of 2020 was a whopping $37,500 according to Investopedia. And this is just talking about a bachelor’s degree. Now, I personally am blessed enough to say that I did not accumulate that much debt throughout my few years in college. However, thinking about all the things that I can do with $37,500 only for it to be used toward student loan repayment is tragic.

At the beginning of 2020, I wanted to build a much better personal relationship with money. I am not saying that I was a frivolous spender in the past, but I knew that I could do better with my money. As I grow older, I realize how important my relationship with money is and how tied it is to physical, mental, emotional, and other dimensions of wellness. Now, I admit that having a healthy relationship with money is HARD, particularly when you don’t have it in abundance (such as myself as a recent-ish college grad with an unsteady income flow). The hard reality is that unfortunately, money does make the world go round — just take a look around you! However, I wanted to finally prove to myself that I could attain some kind of financial goal of saving an X amount of money or paying off in full a significant bill in my life. Thus, in 2020, I established the most notable financial goal I have ever set for myself: pay off my student loans before I begin grad school. So, did I do it?

YES, I DID!!!

In December 2020, I officially became debt-free, whoohoo! To see the email titled “Payment Fulfillment” from my loan provider was one of the most beautiful emails I had ever received.

All in all, my total student loan debt remaining in 2020 was exactly $4333 and I accomplished my 2020 financial goal of paying it off fully within 11 months. To be specific, I started to aggressively pay off my debt at the beginning of February 2020, and as an early Christmas gift to myself, I finished paying it off toward the end of December 2020. So, I actually achieved my goal MUCH earlier than what I initially set it out to be (paying off my debt right before grad school began). Now, to many, $4.3k is really not a lot of money at all. In fact, I am thrilled that my college debt did not match the U.S. average student loan debt I previously mentioned. However, an accomplishment is an accomplishment, and given my personal and financial circumstances in 2020 (times were rough, lol), I found that it was harder to effectively budget enough money to continuously pay off my loans. Thus, to be able to say that I now do not owe $4.3k to a loan company is an achievement that I will bask in for some time.

In a nutshell, my ability to successfully become debt-free had to begin with my mindset and how I view my relationship with money. I found that listening to podcasts about financial literacy and financial independence as well as hearing others’ debt-free testimonies tremendously set the stage to make my written financial goal a reality. One podcast that continuously inspired and motivated me throughout my journey was the Clever Girl Finance (I highly, HIGHLY recommend).

After rebuilding a healthier, positive outlook on my money, the following is what helped me pay off my debt within a year:

  1. Increasing my work hours
  2. Using my other talents to generate additional income — aka “side hustling”
  3. Giving/tithing
  4. Stashing away money in my piggy bank

Before I elaborate specifically on these key actions that helped me along the way, I took advantage of the freeze on student loan repayments due to the COVID-19 pandemic! I do understand that most people have been hit financially due to the pandemic, including myself. I do want to validate that for many, making payments during the freeze was not a feasible option. Because I was not being charged interest on my federal loans, I took advantage of my forbearance status and continued making those payments. Therefore, I was really able to see my principal balance decrease significantly throughout 2020. Seeing this amount dwindling was the reinforcement that I needed to continue paying it off aggressively.

  1. Increasing my work hours: Time is money, right? After receiving more free time in my schedule since I was no longer working on OT prerequisites, I was able to commit more time to see more clients more days out of the week for my job. As a result, I did start to see my paycheck increase since I no longer worked 6 hours a week, lol! Though it was nice to have time to myself, I knew that it could better be spent making an impact in my clients’ lives while also getting paid for it.
  2. “Side hustling”: People tend to say things such as “I should get paid for this” regarding altruistic services that go unnoticed after a while. I have definitely had those moments throughout my life (altruistic or not), whether it was trying to get an allowance for doing house chores (I never got an allowance, by the way) or constantly helping a struggling classmate with their math homework. For me, I thought deeply about some of the hobbies and talents that I like to do such as photography and making hair products, and then start to add monetary value to them! In 2020, I got to do several photoshoots that earned me extra income per month. Not only was I able to grow in my photography skills, but I was able to witness how my talents can help me financially (Shameless plug: I totally still consider myself an amateur photographer but you can check out my website here to see what I was up to!). Additionally, I began to sell homemade Ayurvedic whipped shea butter that I have been using for my hair and skin (another shameless plug: If you are interested in purchasing my shea butter, visit me here to connect!). Over time, these sales were also able to help me pay more than my usual minimum monthly payment for my loan. Therefore, capitalizing on my talents truly did earn me some additional cash that I was able to directly put into decreasing my loan balance.
  3. Tithing/Giving: Honestly, tithing initially was quite difficult for me because all I could think about was the lack of money and the daunting thousands of dollars that I had pending. However, I reminded myself that the money that I received was not my money, but God’s money given to me to utilize. I do believe that by giving and tithing, I was, in turn, blessed financially as well. I can honestly say that there were many times throughout my financial journey that I felt the money in my bank account was in abundance (for my standards) even after paying off all of my major bills. I very much believe that if I tithe and give in any capacity, whether it is financially, personally, etc. I receive what I put out. I’m telling you, God always provides!
  4. Stashing away money in my piggy bank: Back in 2017, I bought a $3 piggy bank (it was a steal for Target) and decided to start a yearly savings plan after being inspired by my mom’s impressive results from saving throughout the year. I worked my little part-time job on campus and really thought that I was the bank with my weekly bougie brunch dates. Thus, I decided to reallocate some of my brunch ‘budget’ to my piggy bank. I followed a 52-week money-saving challenge where I essentially put away X amount of money that corresponds to the week of the year it is. For instance, if it is week 33 of the year, I would be required to add $33 into my piggy bank. Since then, I can say that except for 2019 (times were also rough for me), I saved over $1,000 each year! Weeks 1-10 were very good to me, whereas weeks 40-52 were quite challenging — especially given the fact that October, November, and December are always my high spending months. However, saving over $1,000 in a year with consistency and discipline did pay off tremendously as a nice bonus in the end. Without having to tap into my paycheck, I utilized a small portion of this money to make one final FAT loan payment.
    • Quick tip for the 52-week money challenge: Try reversing the saving plan so that you begin putting $52 into your piggy bank instead of $1! That way, the money required to complete your money challenge won’t be as difficult to set aside, especially during the peak spending holiday months.

Overall, these are intentional actions that I took to free myself of my college student loans! I know that I will be facing future debt for the cost of graduate school and other life milestones because, in this society, debt is mostly inevitable. But, I now know that I am capable of eradicating my student loans after being consistent, intentional, and optimistic throughout my debt-free journey in 2020. For those who are currently grieving about student loans, I hope that my reflection gives you some inspiration in tackling your debt-free journey! It is difficult and it requires a lot of mindset shifting, and everyone’s financial situation is completely different. However, I refuse to believe that we are destined to die with our debt because that just can’t be it! I would suggest finding your why in why you want to pay off your debt before proceeding on this journey. Is it for financial independence? Early retirement? Less stress? As you go through your debt-free journey, remembering your why will be essential when times are really hard. I would love to see how my mindset changes regarding my student loan repayment journey when I finish grad school, haha!

You got this, and let’s all strive to become debt-free because we deserve financial freedom!

Peace and love,

Irene

From Pre-OT Student to Admitted OT Student – The Process Uncovered!

Hello, friends! Today I am feeling so many emotions regarding my journey to becoming an OT. My program recently sent me an email including our orientation day and the first day of the fall semester, and it just got REAL. Like wow, I am really doing this?? I know that the process can be overwhelming and difficult, so I would like to share with you my personal journey with the tangible steps I personally took to get into my top OT schools.

Before I proceed, I just want to caution you that this is MY personal narrative of what worked best for ME. Thus, I cannot guarantee that you will be offered an acceptance if you do every single thing that I did. However, I am here as a resource and as a guide to share what could work. Every situation is different and everyone’s journey is so unique, so I want to validate and uplift that throughout your OT pursuit!

SO! You may be a recent college grad, a current undergrad, or even a high schooler and exploring all career options for yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are in your educational journey, this post can still be applicable for you!!

You’ve dipped your toes in the requirements necessary to get into OT school and now you may be feeling overwhelmed and thinking to yourself, I have ALL of these requirements that I have to do in order to get into OT school and I dont know where to start. Trust me, I was in the same boat as you were not too long ago. I get it – the struggle is reaaalll. BUT lemme tell you, as long as you put your mind to it and remember your Why OT? you will persevere and make it through!

This is what my journey looked like throughout the years in a nutshell:

  1. 2015: It was my senior year of high school and I decided that I wanted to explore OT as a career after ditching the pediatrician dream. I applied to colleges as a psychology major because it seemed to complement OT very well. I later changed my major to Human Development because it encompassed a more holistic view of people that intrigued me and seemed more applicable to OT in my eyes.
  2. 2016: I had a freak-out moment and decided for a few months that I actually did not want to pursue OT and instead wanted to merely become a psychologist or a teacher (a large part of it was influenced by hearing daunting stories about anatomy and physiology). However, my major advisor helped me reason through my anxieties about pursuing this career.
  3. 2017: I began to seek internships and volunteer opportunities related to OT. I became acquainted with a pediatric outpatient OT clinic but was unable to volunteer there due to lack of transportation. I later was accepted to another competitive internship where I finally was able to rotate through different departments that housed OTs.
  4. 2018: I wasn’t getting the observation hours I felt that I needed to be competitive for OT school, so I took a break from actively seeking OT observation hours by focusing on graduating college and preparing to study abroad. I also attempted to do OT-based research in Ghana (where I studied abroad); however, access to OTs were non-existent at my placement and, thus, I was unable to observe OT in another country.
  5. 2019: I came back to the States and began my pre-OT grind. I completed my remaining prerequisites such as Anatomy, Physiology, and Abnormal Psychology. I also sought out additional volunteer opportunities and began to build bonds with the OTs that I shadowed.
  6. 2020: I now felt ready to apply to OT programs after countless hours completed, prerequisites finished, and some money (emphasis on the some) saved up. I continued to do research and began reaching out to schools before applications opened (for me, they opened around mid-July) to ensure that I was on the right track with my OT school preparation. Fast forward to the end of the year – I got accepted to all the schools I applied for!
  7. 2021: I am now transitioning to matriculating to the OT school of my choice by finding housing, working on scholarships, and orienting my mind on personal and professional development.  

So, if you do the math, becoming an OT has been a part of my vision for at least six years. I didn’t even realize that I was subconsciously in the process for so long!  

I also wanted to highlight the different moving parts of assembling your OT application (note: all of these requirements greatly vary upon program, so always do your research beforehand!). This is a general outline of what I had to complete in order to submit a competitive application down below:

  • OT Prerequisites
    • Though you can apply to OT school being any major, you do have to take a multitude of prerequisite courses that assesses your preparedness for the rigor of the academic curriculum. This can include many different courses, but generally, you will have your anatomy, physiology, statistics, psychology, human development, and biology classes. My school of choice also required a sociology course, medical terminology, and an English course. I saw that some schools even require physics or an art course, so it all depends on what the school is looking for!
  • OT Observation Hours
    • Most schools require a minimum number of observation hours when applying for their schools. They seriously range from no hours at all to upwards of 80-100 minimum hours of shadowing or observing. If the school says that they do not require observation hours, I still say go for it because if anything, it will help you solidify whether or not this career is for you. When completing my observation hours, I kept a running log of the days, times, the OTs I shadowed, and a summary of what I observed that day. This later helped me accurately record my hours on my application. Moreover, the summaries of my observation days tremendously helped me develop ideas for my personal statement.
  • Letters of Recommendation
    • Make sure to have a list of recommenders who you know you well and can attribute to the versed, positive qualities that you want highlighted in your LOR. Shy away from choosing a professor that you had very limited interactions with or an OT who you did not really work with because those recommendations will likely not truly highlight your work ethic, personality, etc. in the way that is reflective of you. I personally handpicked professors, work supervisors, and OTs I personally connected with to write my recommendations. Also, ensure that you ask weeks, if not months, in advance for a recommendation to allow your recommenders ample time to write a glowing recommendation. It looks professional on your end that you’ve thought about this process and will ensure that your recommenders are not stress-writing your recommendations.
  • Resume
    • Some schools will ask you to attach a resume or a CV to your application, so you should be ready to have a polished and current document to submit with your application. If it is not asked of you, you can always use them as a guide to fill out the extracurriculars/volunteer section of your application.
  • Personal Statement
    • Honestly, my advice to you is to try to at least plan an outline or jot down ideas months in advance to get into the mode of writing your statement. I struggled with this part of the application because I initially was not being my authentic self and was composing what I thought the OT admissions committee would like to see. However, I scrapped my initial draft and then began to finally write my story. At the end of it all, I produced a much more compelling personal statement. It is okay to take a break from writing! I did not perfect my personal statement until about a month/month and a half or so.
    • A word of advice: Have people that you trust read your personal statement. It is your narrative that allows you to shine among many applicants, so if you can choose folks around you that can give you constructive feedback, that would be ideal! I personally had about five folks read my personal statement constructively. This may have been too many, but it all depends on what you feel that you need for your writing process. Have friends, OTs, professors, family members, and/or acquaintances/near-strangers read your personal statement for varying perspectives. They can offer lots of insight on grammar, content, voice, and even affirmations on your writing skills (which I totally needed). And most importantly, at the end of the day, you can choose to accept or reject any of the suggestions that you receive because it is your narrative.
  • The GRE
    • To be honest, I really don’t have anything to say about the GRE because I avoided the GRE like the plague. Thankfully, all the schools I was interested in initially did not require it! You can email me to hear my personal thoughts about why I did not take the GRE, lol!
  • Supplemental Apps
    • Some schools will require that after your first general application you submit a secondary or supplemental application. Some schools are generous in the fact that you just have to answer a few more short answer/essay questions in addition to your personal statement, but other schools require an entirely different application (which you usually have to submit an extra payment for as well). Be ready to elaborate on your personal statement or highlight other parts of your life not yet shown on those applications.
  • The Interview Process
    • Once your initial application has been moved onto the next stage of the admissions process, most schools will invite you to interview with them. Due to the pandemic, all of my interviews were via Zoom. However, this did not necessarily make the situation less stressful, for I really had to ensure that my personality shined through via a computer screen. For me, the interview process actually went a lot more smoothly than I anticipated! My interviews ended up being an intellectual conversation regarding my thoughts about OT and how my upbringing has shaped me to become the person who I aspire to be.
    • Here are a few quick tips on conquering the interview:
      • Prepare! I don’t know about you, but actually giving a strong and meaningful answer for “how do you define OT?” was a lot more difficult than I expected. To prepare, I Googled ‘common OT school interview questions’ and got a plethora of questions to practice answering. I also Youtubed OT interview questions and saw how different people answered different possible questions. What really helped me was to write out my answers on notecards and use them as a guide (note how I did not say ‘memorize notecards’) to jog my memory of important aspects I wanted to discuss in an interview. Lastly, I practiced my interviews in front of the mirror and with a friend via Zoom to stimulate how my actual interview day would go. Preparation for interviews also means DO YOUR RESEARCH on the program that you are interviewing for! This includes the school’s mission statement, faculty, or any other interesting facts that initially drew you to the school. Interweaving these details into your answers will further reassure the interviewers that you’ve done your research and that you are serious about your potential commitment to the school.
      • Speak with confidence and power! In the interview, the interviewers are genuinely not trying to trick you. They want to get to know the real you. Thus, it is important to be confident in yourself. You have already done the hard work of putting together a competitive application, so now this is your chance for your personality to shine through! Confidence goes a long way, so be your authentic self and that will help you stand apart among hundreds of other applicants.
      • Write thank-you notes! Once you have completed your interview, if you have access to your interviewer’s email, write a thank-you note to them! They are helpful because they first will allow the interviewer to remember who you are. But most importantly, it shows that you valued the time spent conversing with them. Again, I had Googled example thank-you notes and tailored them to make them more personal and salient.

Overall, I have bombarded you with a LOT of information. To conclude, here are some takeaways that I learned throughout my application process worth mentioning:

  1. Network, network, and NETWORK!!! I mean get on social media and follow OT-related folks, don’t hesitate to post a question or ask for help in that Facebook group, and build connections with the OTs, your professors, etc. who can guide you in your pursuit to becoming an OT. I met SO many people who have been beyond helpful through networking these past few years!
  2. Save money because those applications can get SO expensive, especially if you are submitting secondary applications as well! Also, if you qualify, some schools can give you a fee waiver – so take advantage of that by planning ahead!
  3. Your personal statement is what it is YOU. Make sure that it truly shows the raw, authentic, and genuine you because at the end of the day, that is what the admissions committee wants to learn and discover – YOU! Even after all of the revisions and peer-editing, you get the final say on your personal statement.
  4. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! I cannot emphasize this enough. When I had let go of this unnecessary fear and doubt that I tried to plague my mind with, I finally let my confidence shine through in every aspect of my application and interview process. Remember, you have been working at this for a long time and it is now manifesting right in front of you. Claim your acceptance into your top school. It is hard for others to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

I hope that this information was useful, reader! Remember, you are amazing for even making it this far in pursuing your OT journey. Wherever you are in your journey, always affirm yourself throughout the process. Becoming an OT is no easy feat – I have only made it to the ‘getting accepted into OT school’ part of the journey and still have a long road ahead of me. If you ever have any questions or clarifications, I would love to further discuss my points with you! OT needs YOU, so you will conquer!

Peace and love,

Irene

I Love Being Black!

Hello, Black friends! I love being Black! I said I LOOVVEEE being Black! I love the texture of my hair, the skin that I’m in! What an anthem ALWAYS (I switched up the lyrics a bit, but you get the point)! I first heard this chant when I was in college. Being surrounded by the beautiful gathering of Black college students expressing their Blackness in a multitude of shades, hairstyles, clothing, and many other expressions has always been some of my favorite memories of a cohesive celebration of pure Black joy.

I can rave on and on about why I love being Black. Yes, being Black has its struggles. Let me emphasize – being Black in America IS a continuous struggle. I always have to think twice about my appearance, the words that come out of my mouth, and the way I move in my environment. However, it is also with these struggles that I have learned that my Blackness is glorious and pretty dang powerful.

To me, being Black is a gift. It is an honor that I hold dear to my heart and that I wear with pride consistently. Being Black has allowed me to see the multifaceted injustices in my community and what my role is as a Black woman to change them. My Blackness is also so diverse. I am a Congolese-American, so I get to intertwine these two identities and witness them co-exist with each other simultaneously. Being Black, I have learned that there is no one true way to BE Black. I can define my Blackness to mean anything that I want it to mean! I am not going to lie; when I was younger, I lacked a lot of representation of Black folks in my life and, thus, had a very warped perception of how Blackness manifests. Because I didn’t watch the movie Friday, didn’t eat soul food (actually didn’t even know what soul food was until my late teens), or failed miserably at the game Black Card Revoked, I didn’t think that I was “Black enough” to fit in with the Black communities around me. I struggled to wholeheartedly love my Blackness for many more reasons besides the seemingly trivial ones listed above. BUT I learned a GREAT LESSON later on in my personal development as I began to unlearn my preconceived notions about Blackness. Being Black is not a monolith, so don’t ever let anyone convince you that it is! That is a dangerous way to think that completely invalidates the diverse experiences of Black people (example – myself!). Remember, you CAN fail miserably at Black Card Revoked and still be Black! I speak for myself though, lol!

I will forever be unapologetically Black as I navigate the world around me. All of my identities come with “Black” attached to them first, for I could never see the world without this melanin covering my body. To all my Black folks out there – Happy Black History Month! We are BOMB! We are light, joy, and excellence. Remember, the celebration of Blackness is not just limited to the month of February. Let’s continue to radiate our Blackness in honoring and celebrating our ancestors, our history, our accomplishments, and our triumphs yet to come.  

Peace and love,

Irene