OT Professor Leads Virtual Ireland Study Abroad Course

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Not being able to physically visit Ireland this summer did not deter Dr. Karen McCarthy, assistant professor of Occupational Therapy, from providing her students with a deep dive into the social, political, and historical impact of mental health in Ireland.

McCarthy was due to lead a global study course last month in which her 22 students would gain on-the-ground insight into the evolving role of occupational therapy in mental health services. McCarthy has many connections to Ireland. After completing her clinical doctorate in occupational therapy at the University of Southern California in 2008, she taught mental health occupational therapy at University College Cork from 2012-2016 before joining Dominican in 2016 in the School of Health and Natural Sciences. 

With the global pandemic restricting international travel, McCarthy worked with Dominican’s Global Education Office (GEO) to replicate her coursework for online delivery. The result was an intense program featuring 14 guest lecturers, virtual tours, film nights, book club discussions, podcasts, videos, photography, lived experience narratives, scholarly articles, an art project (tying Celtic knots), and a live musical performance to end the course.

“Although the experience of being in the place where history and culture happen can never be replaced, I felt that the content of the course was too important to be postponed,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy’s guest lecturers (all based in Ireland) included occupational therapists, a local CEO, scholars in theatre and psychology, activists, and a composer. Virtual tours brought Ireland to the students.

“I wanted to capture the heart of Ireland, so I used images, video, and music to add an emotional and cultural dimension,” McCarthy says. She even created a Spotify playlist and invested in a green screen to use virtual backgrounds for each part of the course that tied to the location of the content being discussed.

“As much as possible I tried to use Gardner's principles of multiple intelligences, utilizing multiple entry points to learning with musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, linguistic, visual/ spatial, and kinesthetic,” she says.

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The course — which took place from early to mid-June — also allowed for powerful and timely discussions on the fragility of human communities in relation to issues of social equity and racial justice.

“In order to enhance global interconnectivity, there were parallels between the course content of sanism in Ireland and racism in the United States, as the course was held during the Black Lives Matter movement post George Floyd's death,” McCarthy says. “These discussions around othering and discrimination provided parallel threads added to the depth of the course.”

For second-year occupational therapy graduate student Carly Spina, studying how institutions, policies, professionals, and treatments have influenced the evolution of mental health services in Ireland reinforced the realization that as an occupational therapist, she can connect her interest in rehabilitation and her passion for activism.

“I was especially affected by the stories I heard from survivors of psychiatric abuse, on the Zoom platform,” Carly says. “My peers and I felt lucky that these face-to-face meetings were possible.”

Every summer, Dominican’s GEO offers a wide variety of global courses taught by Dominican faculty in overseas locations. These popular courses allow faculty and student cohorts to live, learn, and explore together while immersed in a new culture. This year COVID-19 and related international travel restrictions initially threatened to eliminate all global courses – until Dominican’s faculty stepped up to rethink the study abroad experience.

“Thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of our talented faculty members, we were able to offer two virtual global courses,” says Dr. Kati Bell, director of GEO.

In addition to McCarthy’s “The Emerald Asylum: Critical Perspectives on Mental Health in Ireland” course, GEO worked with Radica Ostojic-Portello, assistant professor of Literature, Language and Humanities in the School of Liberal Arts and Education, to redesign her “Spanish Language and Culture of Mexico” course. The online curriculum featured virtual tours to museums, guest speakers, cooking lessons, interviews with local chefs, and musical performances.

“The students and faculty all really loved the format of these virtual courses, and I’m very proud of the faculty for being so innovative and flexible with the concept and delivering such a great experience for our students this summer,” Bell says.

McCarthy assessed student learning through daily pre-lecture tasks, daily reflections post-class, and the creation of a digital portfolio to capture the course learning. The end of the class consisted of a digital portfolio showcase where people outside the course were invited to attend, as well as a live musical performance to celebrate the end of the class.

McCarthy was surprised at how emotional the course was for students.

“Many students shared that it was emotionally difficult but important,” she recalls. “At times I saw students tear up during guest lecture talks. They talked about their emotions in their journal reflections.”

In addition to the daily discussions, McCarthy offered a mid-week check-in session to address students’ feelings around the course and racism in the U.S.

‘It is crucial that we consider as educators the emotional toll that learning can have for students,” she says. “I made sure to have small group discussions in breakout rooms where students might feel more comfortable discussing sensitive issues.”

“Dr. McCarthy did a fantastic job of facilitating this curriculum online with such short notice, and provided incredible opportunities for reflection through daily journaling assignments,” Carly says. “As a result, I have developed an enhanced sense of global interconnectivity, despite the fact that this course was completed from my living room.”

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