close up of Ashley Sullivan in a labcoat against a brick wall
Student Spotlight

Award-Winning Student Ashley Sullivan Brings Intercultural Perspective to Occupational Therapy Practice

close up of Ashley Sullivan in a labcoat against a brick wall

With perspective gained from an occupational therapy internship in Kenya, Ashley Sullivan, BS (Health Psychology) ’21, takes a thoughtful approach in treating patients of all cultures and backgrounds.

In May 2021, Ashley Sullivan graduated cum laude from the Bachelor of Science in Health Psychology - Occupational Therapy Pathway (BS/MSOT) program. Because of the accelerated pace of the pathway program, she has just a year and a half left to complete her Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. As a transfer student from Quincy College, Sullivan was initially interested in using her health psychology major for a career in physical therapy. However, through the health psychology seminar series and its corresponding research and poster projects, she realized that her interests more closely align with occupational therapy. For example, one of her favorite courses, Child and Adolescent Development, happens to be one of the required courses for MSOT students. Sullivan has a special interest in pediatrics, and she also likes that occupational therapy has a psychological component. She enjoyed learning a different side of pediatrics through an internship at Boston Children’s Hospital’s family resource room, where she provided support and resources for the families and caregivers of pediatric patients. For her Capstone, Sullivan worked with Associate Professor of Psychology Amanda Kentner, PhD, to research early intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder, using the biopsychosocial model as a lens. Sullivan says the Health Psychology program emphasizes the importance of the biopsychosocial model in evaluating a person as a whole because of the interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors. “If someone is experiencing pain, there may be other external factors that influence the person’s perception of pain,” Sullivan explains.

In addition to Sullivan’s competency in the biopsychosocial model, she also has a respect for and understanding of intercultural differences in healthcare, which won her the President’s Commitment to Diversity Award, given to one student among all MCPHS health psychology majors. Her empathy can largely be traced back to a 32-day internship she had with International Medical Aid, during which she shadowed occupational therapists in Kenya. She pursued the opportunity, which involved a year-long application process, after learning about it through a friend she had met when completing her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) licensure. Not only did she get to shadow occupational therapists in an outpatient pediatric center, but she also got to shadow physical therapists and psychiatrists at Coast Provincial General Hospital, the second-largest hospital in Kenya. “It was absolutely an incredible experience,” she says.

Sullivan was able to assist physical therapy patients in passive range of motion exercises for lower extremities due to her prior experience, though her job as an intern was mostly to observe: “I watched as these healthcare professionals used innovation and creativity to serve their patients despite the limited resources.” Sullivan says she felt prepared for the role because of her education at MCPHS. For example, she mentioned the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down—recommended by one of her professors—as being a helpful resource in understanding how medicine varies around the world. Because of her internship, Sullivan was able to witness that variability firsthand. “It was amazing seeing the differences with culture and how things are treated. . .” says Sullivan. “I felt that they really challenged me to really think about what else is out there, and how they treat medicine differently than we do in the US.”

Another experience that taught Sullivan how to navigate treatment for patients in a different culture was the case of a young boy who came in with tribal makeup around his eyes. The mother of the patient told her that the markings were meant to ward off cursing, as she believed the boy’s condition was due to the curse of another tribe. The occupational therapist Sullivan was shadowing adjusted the treatment so that the mother felt respected but also understood the necessity of the prescribed exercises. “I hope to use the example set by the medical staff at Coast Provincial General to become a creative and resourceful occupational therapist,” Sullivan says. As an occupational therapist, she aims to keep in mind and respect that people are different and experience life differently. She adds that it is not the responsibility of patients to conform, but that it is the responsibility of providers to educate themselves on different cultures as they arise. She believes healthcare providers need to recognize that their science-based education doesn’t mean patients’ cultural beliefs are wrong: “[it means] that we have to find a middle ground and educate and come together so we’re not coming off as disrespectful to any culture.”

In addition to her appreciation for intercultural perspectives, Sullivan is grateful for the interprofessional values of MCPHS. She enjoys networking and bouncing ideas off students pursuing other medical professions, and she feels well prepared to work on interdisciplinary healthcare teams in the future. She also “cannot speak highly enough” about the faculty. Professor of Psychology and Director of the Health Psychology Program Stacie Spencer, PhD, was particularly influential to her. “I was in her office all the time. She is by far my favorite professor, favorite mentor that I’ve ever had. She really just changed my way of thinking and my confidence in my degree and myself,” says Sullivan. “She also makes it a point to know all of her students.” Sullivan adds that she had only been at MCPHS for a month before Dr. Spencer approached her, concerned that they hadn’t previously been acquainted. Dr. Spencer is the co-author of a resource given to MCPHS psychology students: “The Skillful Psychology Student,” a document published by the American Psychological Association, which lists psychology skills valued by employers. Sullivan says, “One of my favorite things about the health psych program is it really makes you look inward at yourself, and look at all the skills that a psychology student should be graduating with—but not only are you looking at what you should be graduating with—you’re looking at how you can back up these skills and what different experiences you can represent these skills in.” She says she has felt prepared for each internship and fieldwork placement because of the expectations she has had to meet as a student in MCPHS’s health psychology program. In August, Sullivan will have a two-week rotation at Milford Regional Medical Center – Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine where she will be observing a hand therapist. She looks forward to her Pediatric Level I clinical rotation at Easterseals, a nonprofit organization in Manchester, New Hampshire that provides services to people with disabilities and special needs.