By Kacey Finch
Ke’Andra Clayton wanted nothing to do with science in 2007 when she arrived at the University of Florida as an undergraduate business major and education minor. But life had other plans for her.
Clayton, now 30, is back on the UF campus, this time studying neuroscience and pathophysiology as part of the inaugural class in PHHP’s new doctor of occupational therapy program.
“It’s amazing how life works,’’ she said. “Sometimes you end up taking roads less traveled.”
As an undergraduate, Clayton worked part time with the Extended Day Enrichment Program, or EDEP, in Gainesville. After graduating, she decided to stay with EDEP as an activity leader while also working as a substitute teacher, where she mainly filled in at special needs classrooms. She went on to serve as intern coordinator at Fort Clarke Middle School in Gainesville before taking a job as an after-school coordinator at what is now the Duval Early Learning Academy in Gainesville.
Pursuing a teaching certificate had always been in the back of her mind, Clayton said, and with the encouragement of several school leaders, she decided to go for it.
After becoming a certified teacher, she was offered a job at Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville teaching special needs pre-kindergarten students.
“I worked very closely with speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy,” she said. “I just really loved that aspect of the job.”
These interactions with therapists who were striving to better the lives of special needs children brought Clayton back to UF — this time to pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy.
“The whole reason that I’m here is because of my experience with children with special needs,” she said. “I enjoy enriching children’s lives.”
Clayton took prerequisite night classes at Santa Fe College for two years while teaching full time before beginning the UF OTD program in August. Now, Clayton keeps pictures of her students on her notebooks to remind her of why she’s here.
“I just feel like they’re my biggest cheerleaders, even though they can’t verbally express it,” she said. “I know they’re cheering me on, and that I’ll make it to the finish line.”
After graduation, Clayton hopes to focus on pediatric occupational therapy.
“Working in the schools, I saw so many kids who didn’t have the proper resources that they needed, whether it was because of insurance or misdiagnosis or late diagnosis,” she said. “If the therapist, teacher and parents are all on the same page, it will make a world of a difference in that child’s life.”
The switch to a doctorate program from the master’s in occupational therapy began four years ago when OT department leaders decided they wanted to provide students with training not available in a master’s program, said Christine Myers, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor in the department of occupational therapy and director of the new program, the first at a public university in Florida.
“The main impetus for beginning the program was to get our students at the highest level they could be when they graduated so they could be leaders in our profession and understand how to use evidence and science to make clinical decisions,” she said.
Clayton was a perfect candidate for the program, Myers said, because she has experience working with children with disabilities, with teams of professionals and with families.
“That’s always a really good fit for our program,” Myers said. “We were very excited that we were able to have her join us.”
Clayton credits where she is now to her experiences as a teacher and to the students who continue to inspire her.
“All of those experiences led me back here, doing something totally different, something that I never ever expected to do,” she said. “It’s weird how things can bring you full circle.”