n 1969, scores of American veterans were returning from Vietnam, their lives irrevocably changed by physical and psychological wounds. Concurrently, children with disabilities could not hope for the same educational outcomes as their peers, and older adults with mobility issues often found themselves sidelined.
That same year, a small occupational therapy program in Connecticut was launched. That program would evolve through 50 years of technological, social and educational advances to become a nationally ranked powerhouse with more than 3,000 alumni who leave indelible marks on the lives of children, adults, veterans and numerous other populations across the country.
The story of Quinnipiac’s OT program is one of both constants and change. Classes are no longer held in shaky metal trailers on the Mount Carmel Campus. Pottery and leather stamping are no longer part of the curriculum, nor is the U.S. Army Craft Manual required reading. However, as Betsey Smith, senior associate dean of the School of Health Sciences and a 1979 OT alumna, reminded several generations of graduates, the culture of compassion, adaptability and inclusivity begun 50 years ago remains unchanged.
“I want to make sure that the newer graduates appreciate that this hasn’t changed,” said Smith, speaking at a 50th anniversary celebration held in September on the North Haven Campus. “It’s important for people to understand where we came from, and the legacy of the individuals who came before.”
No figure looms as large as the late Ruth M. Griffin, the founding director of Quinnipiac’s occupational therapy program. Griffin graduated from the Boston School of Occupational Therapy at Tufts University in 1946 and went on to become a highly sought-after leader in her field, both nationally and internationally. She arrived at Quinnipiac College in 1969 to develop the OT curriculum in what was then the School of Allied Health and Natural Sciences.
As chief architect of OT at Quinnipiac, Griffin developed an interdisciplinary program alongside faculty from the physical therapy department. The finalized curriculum was divided into three areas of practice — mental health, physical disabilities and pediatrics—and many courses integrated both OT and PT students.
“Ruth was interprofessional in every sense,” said Kim Hartmann ’76, MHS ’82, professor of occupational therapy and director of the Center for Interprofessional Healthcare Education at Quinnipiac. “Her enthusiasm for the rehabilitation sciences paved the way for all future OT alumni.”
In Griffin, Smith remembers an outspoken, deeply knowledgeable and forward-thinking mentor who reminded students that their job was to help people live their own uniqueness. She also instilled in them a healthy fear of growing complacent in their profession.
“Ruth always said that it was our responsibility to create our future,” Smith said. “She made sure we had our 5- and 10-year plans mapped out.”
The OT program’s first 10 years were marked by tremendous growth. The number of graduates increased from 13 in the inaugural class of 1974 to 49 by the start of the next decade. Increased enrollment forced the program to move from spaces at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford and classrooms at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven in the 1970s to a building on Sherman Avenue in Hamden at the start of the 1980s. It was known affectionately as the “Sherm Shack.”
“There were 42 of us together for three semesters in that one room,” recalled a smiling Hartmann.
The role of OTs significantly expanded in many arenas over that period, thanks to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The latter was significant for Smith, who got her first job in a public school system in 1979. She is amazed at how far her profession has come with supporting a student’s ability to participate in school activities.
“A lot of what we were doing back then was trial and error,” said Smith, “but we were always able to determine where our patients were emotionally and what they needed next.”