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Alumni Spotlight: “Take Chances. Find a Mentor. Seize Opportunities. Have Fun.”

Christine Hischmann has practiced occupational therapy in mental health settings for most of her 42-year career. A leader in establishing occupational therapy services in community mental health, Hischmann launched programs in Philadelphia and in northeastern Pennsylvania. She’s also served as director of occupational therapy at Clarks Summit State Hospital in Lackawanna County and was a founding member of the OT faculty at Misericordia University, where she served as department chair from 1996 to 1999. Widely revered in the profession, Hischmann has held service and leadership roles in local, state, and national OT organizations and is a fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Now semi-retired, Hischmann works part-time for the Hospice of the Sacred Heart in Wilkes-Barre. The two-time Temple alumna earned a BS in occupational therapy in 1975 and an advanced master’s degree in 1984.


What drew you to occupational therapy?
I attended a different college for psychology and flunked out after two years. But I had a very good time for those two years [laughs]. I started working at a sporting goods store, where it just so happened that one of my coworkers also worked at Norristown State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. He suggested that with my psychology credits, I could work there as a psychiatric aide. So I did, then later I became an occupational therapy aide. I don’t know what it is about me and my ability to interact with persons with mental illnesses, but it was the first time in my life I felt that I was effective at something. 
 
Why did you choose Temple?
Back in 1969, 1970 there were only two OT schools in the entire state of Pennsylvania: the University of Pennsylvania and Temple. Of the two, Temple appealed to me because it was a community university rather than an Ivy League school. Working at Norristown made me aware of the limitations of persons with mental illness and how stereotypes and discrimination affect them. Plus as a member of the ’60s generation I was protesting the Vietnam War and demonstrating for civil rights. The community around Temple was part of all that, so it worked very well for me.

What were the program’s early days like?
When I was a student in the '70s the program was full time and Temple was mainly a commuter school, which meant that you got to know people who weren't like you at all. I grew up in the very white suburbs of Montgomery County, and Temple was terrific because it really broadened your horizons. Our classrooms and faculty offices were in a converted warehouse, and I think being there helped us to really connect with the community. And having a class of only 28 engendered a real sense of camaraderie.

What inspired you most in your undergrad program?
One thing that made the program special was that the faculty got us into the clinics very early on. In my first semester I observed a children's program at MossRehab. It was only half a day, but I still know the name of the OT who was working with me, still see the child she was working with. That kind of impact was not an unusual experience in the program. It really opens your eyes to the possibilities. 

What is the advantage of that exposure to the community? 
You become inspired to try new things. The faculty were so encouraging, and they made sure you were prepared. No one said, "You have to work in a hospital, you have to work in rehabilitation, you have to work with children." Our education gave us confidence. Now, they were clear in advising us not to start our own departments, not to bite off more than we could chew right out of school. But they also said, "We're here in case you need us."

You came back for grad school – commuting from Scranton.
It was so worth it. In the '80s I was already a clinician in northeastern Pennsylvania. I had been practicing for about five years and was working by myself. I'd started a day treatment program at a rural community mental health center, and I thought, “You know, you really need to expand your skills here.” I needed that contact with OTs again. 

How do you stay involved with the Temple OT community?
I give back in many ways, but I think one of the most important contributions any OT alum can make is to take Temple students for fieldwork. When I was in the clinic I took Temple students all the time. Fieldwork has gotten to be such a nightmare anymore, with OT schools multiplying but more hospitals saying, "We can't do this anymore.” Having fieldwork students keeps you fresh, and in my case also demonstrated to students that a career in OT and mental health was an exciting possibility.

What are some takeaways from your Temple education that you still use today?
My experience at Temple is directly responsible for my getting into community mental health. At the end of the spring semester the program would bring in OTs who practiced in the community. One presenter was a guy named Paul Ellsworth, who was practicing in community mental health. Before then psychiatric patients were sent to either an expensive private hospital or to the state hospitals. The Community Mental Health Act of 1966 made it possible to treat people in their own communities. He changed my perspective completely. Instead of going back to Norristown to work as an OT, I knocked on doors in Philadelphia until I could persuade someone to hire me to provide OT in community mental health services.

As you look back on Temple’s role in your career, how do you feel?
I feel very, very lucky. I had a great education for not very much money; I had absolutely inspirational teachers, and Temple’s faculty gets better all the time. I was so very fortunate. Temple is terrific.

You were the OT Department’s first Alumna of the Year, in 2015. What is your advice to today’s Occupational Therapy students? 
Take chances. There are so many opportunities for OTs out there. If you don't like what you're doing, go do something different. Don't get stuck in a job you don't like. Take a chance on something you think might be interesting.

Find a mentor. The mentor who really inspired me to pursue OT is still my mentor years later. A mentor will answer your questions, help you figure out the next steps of your career path.

Seize opportunities. Because I volunteered to be an accreditation evaluator in 1989, I was so fortunate to become part of ACOTE, revising standards to move to the master’s degree and traveling all over the country doing accreditation visits and meeting wonderful people. That never would have happened if I hadn’t applied to be an evaluator. 

And have fun. You know, occupational therapy is so much fun. So enjoy your career. Love what you do. This should not be a drag. If it's a drag, you're working in the wrong place. 

This story is part of our Occupational Therapy 50th Anniversary Series -- read more here.

Learn more about Occupational Therapy programs

Posted:  March 29, 2017