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Nov. 19, 2018

Alumna finds passion in occupational therapy, gerontology

By Grace Niemeyer, communication assistant


Sarah Zajic

Sarah Zajic

A gerontology certificate from Northwest Missouri State University proved to be an essential component to Sarah Zajic’s occupational therapy career.

“My gerontology certificate changed who I am as a person and helped me succeed throughout my occupational therapy program,” Zajic said. “I developed the ability to see each person as a unique individual with an incredible story to tell. As a society, we do not utilize the knowledge and amazing stories our elder generation has to offer us. I developed the ability to communicate and listen to anyone, which in my opinion is a skill everyone needs to develop, especially in this era of technology.”

Zajic, a 2015 Northwest graduate of the therapeutic recreation and gerontology programs, was the first student to receive a certificate in gerontology from the University. She graduated from College of St. Mary in Lincoln, Nebraska, last summer with her master’s degree in occupational therapy (OT).

During her graduate program, Zajic completed rotations at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research Memorial Hermann in Houston, Texas; Children’s Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska; University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, where Zajic was invited back for a second rotation; and at a skilled nursing facility and hospital in oncology and general medicine.

“You can be the smartest OT and know every piece of textbook knowledge, but if you are unable to connect with patients and earn their respect, they will not work with you,” Zajic said.

Now a certified OT, Zajic works at an assisted living facility in Iowa. Additionally, she is a traveling OT on weekends, visiting hospitals, schools, clinics and skilled nursing facilities throughout Iowa and Nebraska.

“As an occupational therapist, I am seeing many individuals at the worst time of their life, and being able to gain that individual’s trust and develop a relationship with them can be very challenging,” Zajic said. “Working towards my certificate in gerontology taught me how to be empathic and listen to what my patients are telling me. In the healthcare system, some patients can be difficult and not very friendly, but there is always a reason for this. Listening to patients and learning their stories can make anyone the best worker in the world.”

Zajic said her gerontology certificate changed the way she approaches life and recommends students talk with Dr. Sue Myllykangas, a Northwest professor of recreation who serves as the undergraduate curriculum coordinator for the parks and recreation and gerontology programs, about volunteering or exploring the gerontology program, regardless of major. “This certificate will give them qualities that will set them apart from others when job searching and during their employment,” Zajic said.

Myllykangas notes there are nearly 78 million Baby Boomers in the United States. As the number of aging adults continues to rise, students will certainly work with older adults, either as coworkers or as service providers, increasing the need for occupational therapists like Zajic.

“Having a basic knowledge of what happens to all of us as we age can be extremely helpful to anyone’s career,” Myllykangas said.

To learn more about Northwest’s gerontology program, visit www.nwmissouri.edu/academics/undergraduate/minors/gerontology.htm.


For more information, please contact:

Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
mhorn@nwmissouri.edu | 660.562.1704 | Fax: 660.562.1900

Northwest Missouri State University
215 Administration Building | 800 University Drive | Maryville, MO 64468