Luisa Yao Dan Cao, Class of 2019

What got you interested in occupational therapy?

Not surprisingly, it took me some time to fully grasp the diverse scope of Occupational Therapy (OT). During my undergraduate studies, I volunteered at Toronto Rehab Institute with a wonderful team of occupational therapists in the Musculoskeletal Unit, and was inspired by their work in helping individuals regain their independence and transition back into the community. This is where I developed an interest in helping individuals living with physical illness or disability.

At the same time, I was also exposed to the complex challenges of mental illness through friends and family members. As I began exploring the role of OT in mental health more, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Bonnie Kirsh at a mental health conference here at the University of Toronto. In her keynote presentation, Dr. Kirsh spoke about the role of OT in helping individuals with mental health challenges engage in meaningful activities and empowering them to achieve their goals. This reaffirmed my decision to pursue OT, so that I can help individuals cope with the challenges associated with both mental and physical illness or disability and enable them to lead productive and meaningful lives.

What will you remember most about your time in the program?

One of the things I will remember the most is fieldwork placement, because it gave me a broad exposure to different areas of health care: acute care, rehab, community mental health, and inpatient mental health. I’m really grateful for the opportunities that I had to interact with clients of various backgrounds and to have met many professionals and mentors along the way.

I will also remember the relationships that I got to build with my classmates. I am fortunate to have been surrounded by a group of talented, intelligent, and compassionate colleagues who did not hesitate to check-up on one another during stressful times, share resources, and celebrate each other’s achievements throughout the past two years.

What are your areas of interest?

One of my areas of interest is in culturally competent services for refugee populations, who often struggle with a history of trauma, mental illness, poverty, limited access to resources, and difficulty integrating into a new culture. My MScOT research project with my partner Janany Jeyasundaram and Dr. Barry Trentham explored the experiences of intergenerational trauma in second-generation Tamil and Vietnamese refugees from an occupational perspective. Through this research, we were able to better understand some of the unique challenges of both populations, as well as the meaning of healing extending beyond the individual level to the collective level. It is my hope that our research will contribute to the OS/OT literature and eventually influence OT practice to be more culturally competent to meet the diverse needs of these populations, as they work towards healing both as individuals and communities.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I’m interested in working with marginalized populations, particularly those with complex mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. I’ve had two amazing mental health placements with a strong focus on schizophrenia – one on an Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Team at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, and one as a non-clinical leadership placement in the Schizophrenia Program at CAMH. I see myself working somewhere along the continuum of mental health services helping individuals develop the skills to manage their day-to-day life as they work towards recovery.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

First, make use of all the learning opportunities you have both in and outside of the program – such as workshops, conferences, shadowing opportunities, etc.  Second, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone – whether it comes to presenting in front of the class, approaching professors or departmental staff, doing a student-initiated research project, or proposing a role-emerging placement.  Lastly, seek out mentors – through fieldwork placement, volunteering, networking events, previous OT students, etc. This has been instrumental to my professional growth.