For Cassidy Clifford, a career in health care was a given. Her parents both have careers in the field – her dad is an EMT and her mom a medical transcriptionist. She just had to find her niche.
During her freshman year of college at University of North Georgia, Clifford, then a psychology major, volunteered at a summer camp for kids who had suffered strokes. She saw how the camp was designed to use games and fun activities to help the campers regain function on the side affected by their strokes. That was her “aha” moment.
Having completed her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at UNG, Clifford is now working toward her Master of Health Science in Occupational Therapy in the College of Allied Health Sciences at Augusta University, a college she chose for its abundance of opportunities with volunteering and field work.
In her year and a half at AU, Clifford has risen to the top in the occupational therapy program.
“She is one of those quiet leaders,” said Pam Kearney, EdD, chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy. “She does not draw a lot of attention to herself, but she is solid. So solid. She gets the job done in a very high-quality way. She is an example of somebody who’s always in there doing good work. And she’s doing it because she’s committed, not because she’s getting any accolades.”
With high-quality work, however, come accolades. Clifford was awarded the 2023 Scholarship of Excellence by the Association of Schools Advancing Health Professions. The scholarship program was created to recognize outstanding students in the health professions who are achieving excellence in their academic programs and have significant potential to assume future leadership roles in health professions, according to the organization.
“I was thrilled that Cassidy won. It’s a national award and open to students in a variety of allied health professions, not just occupational therapy,” said Kearney. “I think for Cassidy, because she is more that quiet leader, it demonstrates that other people have recognized what she brings to the table and her skills and strengths as an occupational therapist and as a human being — her giving, committed nature.”
Clifford has worked closely with Kearney and Patty Watford, OTD, assistant professor of occupational therapy. The professors are two co-organizers of Camp Discovery, a week-long day camp for women who have been diagnosed with cancer. The primary goals of the camp are to help the participants engage in meaningful occupations and develop a support system through relationships, according to Watford.
Clifford’s experience with the planning and implementation of the camp has helped her develop the skills she will need to be successful in her plans for the future.
“Cassidy was very integral to Camp Discovery’s success. She helped to plan the activities, called sponsors, arranged sessions with instructors, recruited participants, ran the camp and administered assessments to determine the outcomes of the camp,” Watford said. “She helped to plan the daily activities for the camp based on anticipating the participants’ physical status throughout the day, along with grading activities down or up as needed for participants who might have physical or cognitive limitations. This experience will help her in the future to plan camps for participants of all ages for unlimited purposes as an OT.”
Clifford’s work both inside and outside the classroom earned her the national recognition by ASAHP, which started thanks to a nomination by the OT department, followed by Augusta University’s selection of her application for the award.
The scholarship, which is open to most health disciplines, required an essay that addressed why the student selected the health profession for which they are enrolled and what unique contributions they intend to make to the community’s health.
In her essay for the scholarship, Clifford wrote about growing up in rural Georgia and the health care disparities she experienced.
“My essay focused on seeing people in my community struggle with the lack of access to health care, which made me want to go into nonprofit work to help people who couldn’t afford insurance or had no access to services,” she said. “I want to start an OT-led community nonprofit program to give more children and families access to services because everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in their valued activities of daily living.”
Watford offered Clifford the opportunity to gain the experience needed for that goal by helping to plan this past year’s Camp Discovery through Pi Theta Epsilon, the national occupational therapy honor society.
“Getting to work with faculty in developing a new community program definitely furthered my interest in community-based OT,” she said. “I’ve also been very interested in mental health OT which helps people with mental health disorders learn coping techniques and develop life skills so that they can be successful with the activities they need and want to do.”
Clifford presented a poster describing the development of Camp Discovery at the 2023 Georgia Occupational Therapy Association annual conference, where she won the Linda Stevens Scholarship Award, an award given annually at the conference to an occupational therapy or occupational therapy assistant student who demonstrates commitment to the OT profession and potential for leadership and passion in the field.
She has also received the Hendrich Memorial Scholarship, awarded by Augusta University’s College of Allied Health Sciences.
“For me, winning these awards reminds me that I am on the right track, that I’m doing the right thing, and it reminded me to do my best to make a difference as a future OT. It gives me the extra motivation to just keep on and just keep doing better,” Clifford said. “I’m extremely humbled and grateful for this award and for Dr. Kearney and Dean Pretlow for believing in me throughout the process. I’m also very thankful to all my professors who helped me discover my interests within OT and for all their support and encouragement. I was not expecting to even get the school nomination, so finding out I actually won was a huge honor.”
After graduation, Clifford would like to eventually open a community practice in her hometown of Dawsonville, Georgia. She has also considered researching OT’s role in mental health, especially in teens and pediatric patients.
“I feel like it’s something that I think OTs can do so much in, but there’s less research out there for OTs and mental health,” she said.
Her professors are excited to see what big accomplishments Clifford achieves in the future.
“Cassidy is an old soul and is wise beyond her years. She is compassionate, caring and very focused on giving the best possible care to her clients. She is a remarkable student who is changing lives and will continue to do so throughout her career as an OT,” said Watford. “I expect to see more of the same from her. Cassidy will continue to grow and develop her clinical and advocacy skills to help all of her clients increase their quality of life and engage in meaningful occupation.”
“One of the things that I really appreciate about Cassidy is her commitment to working with underserved populations. And I think that we see that in a lot of the service that she has done both while she’s been here and prior to coming to AU,” Kearney said. “I am very excited and look forward to seeing what she does with her career and how she helps to meet the needs of her community, wherever she is, and helps to really address the health of the folks that she’s working with who may not have as many opportunities for that because of their life circumstances.”