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A continuing education ethics event hosted in March by the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy—originally intended for an in-person audience—drew more than 400 participants after it moved online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The student-planned event, titled “Racism in OT Practice: Addressing Ethical Dilemmas and Promoting Justice,” was part of a course in professional development for second-year master’s of occupational therapy students.

Bondurant Hall
Bondurant Hall

Students spearheaded the event and transitioned it from in person to virtual in a matter of days.

“I think the biggest thing for me was having so much support from the faculty to make the transition,” Megan Balentine, a second-year student, said. “That’s what helped us make the switch successfully.”

Raheleh Tschoepe ’04 (’06 MS), an assistant professor, said the division decided to continue to host the event despite the transition online.

“People are at home, and they’re craving community and connection. If we could get the logistics in place, and the students are willing to transition to a virtual platform, why not give it a shot?” Tschoepe said.

The longstanding event series has a rich history within the division and for the program’s alumni, something students credited with motivating them to navigate the switch to an online environment.

Khalilah Johnson (’16 PhD) used her social media following to engage with potential participants, which reached occupational therapists and non-occupational therapists in countries as far away as India.

“It gave us a lot of energy, because this was an important topic,” Johnson said. “I was excited and at the same time I realized—my chest is tight—this is about to be bigger than we thought.”

Johnson, who keynoted the event alongside Lauren Jones (MS ’16) and Stacy Wilson (MS ’10), said the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) recently added diversity and inclusion as part of its 2025 vision. When students selected the topic, Johnson knew it would keep these issues at the forefront of practice when working with clients and their families.

“It’s been important to the profession, but it’s something we hadn’t given intentional focus to,” Johnson said. “I think people are really conscious of how we engage with each other and want to make sure we’re doing so in a meaningful and culturally appropriate way.

Specifically, participants learned where to access literature on the topic and how to translate that literature to engage with organizations they work for to adapt policies in order to avoid practicing in discriminatory ways.

“Everyone’s going to make mistakes,” Johnson said. “There is so much we have to unlearn in order to do better next time.”

Students noted that there are several resources relating to multiculturalism but far fewer when it comes to anti-racism initiatives.

“It’s a difficult topic, and I think a lot of people want to avoid it, but it’s applicable across every setting,” said Candace Silva, a second-year student. “This gives us space to start thinking about it.”

The Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD) plans to host a follow-up event, featuring Johnson, Wilson, Jones, and Varleisha Gibbs on April 29; more than 100 people have registered for the virtual event. Gibbs is the vice president of practice capacity for the AOTA.

Shelley Ashcroft, an adjunct professor and UNC Health employee, teaches the course. The division is considering hosting more online events even after distancing restrictions due to the pandemic lift.

Sammy Dorsey, a second-year student, said planning the event gave him a better appreciation for events, both in person and online.

“It reminds me that this is something that needs to be talked about. The more we talk about it, the further along we’ll get, even if it’s a hard discussion.”

Khalilah Johnson joined the faculty in fall 2019. U.S. News & World Report ranked the master’s in occupational therapy as #10 in the country in spring 2020.