Graduate Speaker's Impact Extends Beyond Occupational Therapy

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Benji Rebekah Harrington fell in love with the occupational therapy profession as a high school student volunteering for their mother’s special education classrooms. Benji witnessed the positive impact an occupational therapist could make on a child’s social interaction, behavior, and classroom performance.

Now, after excelling as both an undergraduate and graduate OT student at Dominican University of California, Benji is planning for a career working with children with developmental disabilities – or, as Benji prefers – disAbilities.

Benji will excel in this role, notes Dr. Julia Wilbarger, associate professor and chair of the Occupational Therapy Department. Wilbarger was so impressed with Benji’s academic and occupational therapy skills that she nominated Benji to serve as the 2021 Graduate Commencement Speaker in May 15's virtual commencement ceremony.

“Benji is an outstanding student academically and is one of the most intuitively OT thinking students I have met,” Wilbarger stated in her nomination.

Benji’s impact on the Dominican campus extends beyond the Occupational Therapy Department.

“They are also an active advocate for LGBTQ+ rights,” Wilbarger wrote. “Benji and peers completed a qualitative capstone study of LGBTQ+ support on college campuses that led to a set of recommendations being considered at the university level.”

Benji’s capstone, completed in partnership with Allison Quintilla ’21 and reviewed by faculty mentor Dr. Karen McCarthy, assistant professor of OT, analyzes the needs and experiences of transgender students in order to synthesize a program to promote occupational and educational equity.

“We created a program to promote inclusivity and equity and implemented our program at DU,” Benji says. “With Dr. McCarthy’s guidance, we started a movement to implement changes across almost every department on campus to support current and future Trans students.”

Recently Benji and Allison presented their research on trans inclusive campuses to both the Occupational Therapy Association of California (OTAC) and Dominican’s Diversity Action Group (DAG).

Benji also has made an impact in the community, working with Marin-based Autistry Studios to help implement the organization’s community mobility assessment and training program, which promotes the growth of independence for students with autism or other similar challenges. Benji was with Autistry Studios during the transition from in-person to fully virtual, helping them plan activities and projects to keep the clients engaged and supported. When their internship ended, Benji was offered a position as a mentor.

Currently Benji is doing fieldwork at Through the Looking Glass in Berkeley where they support infants, toddlers, and new parents with physical, developmental, and intellectual disAbilities.

Benji also helps students with disAbilities at College of Marin and every Sunday offers project-based art therapy to clients. Benji took several art courses as an undergraduate, and the work allows them to further explore how art therapy and OT can work together.

“It has been a great experience for me to incorporate my love and knowledge of art and art therapy with occupational therapy to really work on the goals that are most meaningful to my clients,” Benji says. “I took several art classes in undergrad in as many mediums as I could to be able to support future clients in engaging in whatever form of art calls to them.”

Benji chose Dominican and the School of Health and Natural Sciences because of the course structure, as well as the OT program’s 98 percent National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) pass rate and 100 percent job acceptance rate.

 “These last five years have only reaffirmed time again that occupational therapy is my passion,” Benji says.

Benji was a member of the honors program for all four years of undergraduate and was invited to join the Pi Theta Epsilon OT honor society three years in a row. They also took advantage of the many out-of-the class opportunities, including travelling with the honors students to study art history in Paris, serving as a peer mentor, and participating in the OT Department’s study abroad program in Merida, Yucatán Mexico.

In 2019, Benji, Derian Ramos Lopez ’21, and McCarthy received the Melba Beals Award in Diversity for orchestrating Dominican’s first week-long interdisciplinary Mad Pride celebration. Benji also was a part of a group of OT students who, with McCarthy’s support, began the campus chapter of Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD). Last year, Benji was awarded the Outstanding Occupational Therapy Student Award at undergraduate commencement.
This year while the pandemic meant that Benji’s 12-week Level 2 internship with a school-based pediatric occupational therapist was conducted largely online, they did gain valuable insight into the impact of COVID on clients and families.

“I spent most of my time meeting with clients over Zoom, but in my final weeks was present as students began to return to campus and hybrid education. I learned a lot about the impact this pandemic is having on children, parents, families, teachers, clinicians, and school staff and learned valuable skills in flexibility and understanding.”

As one of Benji’s classmates noted when nominating them for the undergraduate Outstanding Occupational Therapy Student Award:

"Benji Harrington has passion and thinks outside of the box, which is a good trait to have when being in the field of occupational therapy. They are headstrong and know when to stand up for others, is an amazing friend, and is an amazing advocate for those who need to be heard.

"We are all better because of Benji."

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