Tomorrow’s O&P Fueled by Student Energy, Driven by Student Organizations

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By Judith Philipps Otto

As the O&P world evolves and transforms more rapidly than ever before, the heirs to the kingdom are preparing now, in accredited educational programs, to take on the responsibilities and obligations of O&P professionals. A crucial part of their education, however, isn't taking place in their classrooms, instructors agree: Student O&P organizations are playing a significant role in equipping their members for their future roles.


Organizations Also Teach

With the exception of Century College's O&P Student Association (OPSA), the student organizations we examined all have recent roots—2013 or later—and all share similar goals.

OPSA, however, was established in 1999 by then student, Tim Marrin, CPO/L, FAAOP, and Steve Stolberg, CP, who was an instructor and the first faculty advisor, and its current membership numbers vary from 60 to 90 students as cohorts come and go, according to staff advisor Joanna Kenton, CPO/L, FAAOP.

"The mission of OPSA is to promote the O&P profession to Century College and the community, to provide a forum for those who are interested in the profession, and to provide supplemental educational opportunities for students enrolled in the orthotic and prosthetic programs," she says.

Those supplemental opportunities include the advantage of comradeship among OPSA members as they support its mission. "Building community, networking, getting to know each other. That's important when we graduate," Kenton points out.

Michael Cavanaugh, CPO, a lecturer at Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center (NUPOC), and faculty advisor of NUPOC's Student Society (NUPOSS), reports that the society was established when the first master's program class matriculated in 2015—and every student in each new class automatically becomes a society member—no official membership required. Classes usually consist of 48 students per cohort, progressing through online and off-site portions of the program, and NUPOSS sets up a mentoring program, where interested second-year students are assigned mentees from the first-year cohort.

The University of Pittsburgh's Prosthetics and Orthotics Student Organization (POSO) is similarly organized, says Goeran Fiedler, PhD, its advisor.

"The students have always been organized informally, on Facebook and things like that, but it was formalized as an official student organization in 2015. You become an automatic member by being part of this O&P program—which includes 24 students per cohort; when they overlap, it's 48."

The O&P Club at the University of Delaware, established in 2013 and fostered by faculty advisor Eliza Arch, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, has the distinction of being the only club not associated with a master's O&P program, and operates as an undergraduate organization. Most of their members sign up at the O&P Club's recruitment booth at the university's fall activity fair, where all registered organizations are represented. Although as many as 100 may be on the mailing list, a core of 20-30 members lead activities, create projects, and pursue research, says Arch.

"One thing we really focus on is getting an interdisciplinary group of students involved in the club: students from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, exercise science, biology, pre-physical therapy, computer science—we really have tried to get a well-rounded group because there are a lot of facets of O&P that all these majors play into. That has worked very well for us."

The interdisciplinary mix works not only in terms of the club's ambitious—and successful—projects, but also in terms of directing individual members toward careers in O&P. Arch points to many club members who have either pursued post-graduate employment in O&P, gone on to O&P master's degree programs, or earned doctoral degrees in O&P-related fields.

More immediately tangible evidence of its success takes the form of the recognition the O&P Club has gained from the university and the community.

Each year, the O&P Club enters one or more design projects in the university's First Step design challenge, and they have always won a prize, Arch says—including several first place awards, which come with a $5,000 prize and entrepreneurial support toward commercialization, and the Innovation Award, which comes with a $1,500 prize.

In fact, the prize-winning Rehab to Go device—which provides real-time feedback to prosthesis users between their typically infrequent physical therapy sessions, hopefully reinforcing proper gait and preventing poor walking habits from developing—has a patent pending, and there's some interest in commercializing the device, Arch says. (To view details of the device, visit

Another of the club's First Step first prize winner is the Helping Hands prosthesis that offers the wearer at-home strength training. (Visit  to watch a YouTube video about the device.)

"I'm always amazed that just a group of undergrads put so much of their free time and effort into these design projects," Arch says. "They're not required to do any of this."

Kenton also speaks of design competitions and award-winning OPSA efforts: The association sponsors a contest to create the annual OPSA t-shirt design; the best design wins a tool and gift card, and the Golden Hammer Award is bestowed on the student whose project merits the superior craftsmanship title. "Because that's what we do," she explains. "We learn how to build orthotics and prosthetics. So they earn their name on a plaque—and bragging rights."

Students also help out with the annual "Our Hearts to Your Soles" event—in which Red Wing Shoes donates about 500 pairs of footwear for homeless people in the community. "Recipients must see a foot physician, get their feet inspected, get legal help, and generally Red Wing will donate their boots, while student volunteers gain experience measuring and fitting patients alongside other professionals," Kenton says.

OPSA students also organize blood drives, clothing drives for the county thrift store, campus cleanups, and assist at Fit Feet clinics for the Special Olympics; they recently participated in a climb for the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), where one OPSA member was also a speaker.

"These are great ways to get our students involved in volunteer work that makes the world a better place, and hopefully it becomes a lifelong habit," Kenton adds.

Fiedler lists POSO members' involvement with ROMP as well, in addition to educational events, open houses, and a girls' science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) event, designed to inform young adults in the community about O&P, and its "Hearts to Soles" event near Christmas to provide their local homeless population with shoes.

"Fortunately," he notes, "there have been some advances in recent years, and now there's a well-defined framework here at the University of Pittsburgh—the office of student organizations has dedicated staff members who help the organization with registration and compliance and such, and that makes it easier to run an active, thriving student organization these days."

Cavanaugh describes NUPOSS' activities in supporting the Special Olympics, volunteering for the Chicago Marathon, volunteer support for adaptive sports events like wheelchair basketball or golf, and "Go, Baby, Go"—an opportunity for students to help modify ride-on toy cars to provide more independent mobility for children with disabilities.

"We've also made actual little TLSOs for teddy bears that were provided to pediatric patients at the children's hospitals," he adds. "These efforts are pretty impressive because they're all very much student driven and offer lots of professional development opportunities. The Lunch and Learn series, especially, tasks officers of NUPOSS with scheduling speakers who present to the class over lunch hour on a wide range of topics."

Importantly, he says, "NUPOSS helps to organize and run the Residency Day program wherein we invite companies to come to NUPOC each fall and schedule interviews with students for residencies. This is obviously an opportunity for our students to interview with multiple companies and eases the burden of travel for the students; and the companies also benefit, by coming to interview many students in the course of a day or two."

Kathleen Carroll, MSPO, CPO, chair of the Student-Resident Committee of the American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists (the Academy), views student O&P organizations from a different perspective: Her committee includes two student representatives from each of the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education-accredited education programs, as well as some resident and professional members.

"Each month our conference call highlights different aspects of the Academy or features a guest speaker—recently we had the Fellows Committee talk about what it means to be a fellow of the Academy. Academy President Kate Allyn has talked about the different councils and committees, as well as the Scientific Societies, and how students might get involved. We share that information with those student representatives in the hope that they will disseminate it to their peers in their cohort."

A summary of the discussion is then distributed as a pdf, so it's convenient for sharing.

Agendas of Their Own

Today's student leaders in O&P are driven by very different individual goals, and they're also leading their student O&P organizations in exploring new territory.

Abbey Senczyszyn, a former NUPOSS president, explains that research spotlighting the social needs of patients has prompted her increased interest in public health. "I want to do my part to make sure that we provide care that's truly accessible to everyone."

She recognized NUPOSS membership as "an opportunity to try to supplement the education I received in the classroom, to provide more opportunities for professional development and volunteering, while building leadership and communication skills for everybody in the class. Personally, it also helped me further develop my time-management and organizational skills, all of which are very useful as I continue within O&P."

Under her leadership in 2018, the society hosted an O&P policy night, something she had considered organizing before her election. "We coordinated with the OPGA [Orthotic and Prosthetic Group of America] president and the VGM Group," she recalls, "and were actually able to bring two state senators to discuss and explore how we as students and young professionals can advocate with our patients to enact change.

"I know policy is far from everyone's favorite interest," Senczyszyn adds, "but I thought it was important to try and encourage young professionals to develop those skills to really leverage the resources we have available to us."

She also found it "definitely challenging trying to organize all of the events that we wanted to with a small budget and a short timeline. I was very proud that we had over 20 volunteer events throughout the year and our class committed over 495 volunteer hours."

Cece Lee-Hauser, 2019 POSO president, is currently doing her internship for her last semester in the University of Pittsburgh program, and will start her residency in May. She has been focused on research—primarily in outcome measures—for the past six years and hopes to become a clinical manager. "I can't predict where I'm going to be, but I hope I'll be making an impact on my patients' lives for the better," she notes.

Born with a brachial plexus injury and left with Erb's palsy, as a child Lee-Hauser experienced firsthand how effective the right care can be—from dedicated parents, therapists, and physicians.

"I have always been interested in rehabilitation science—particularly upper extremity," she says. "So I went to school for undergraduate work in biomedical engineering, then got my internship here at the University of Pittsburgh within Wheeled Mobility, where I started working with patients one-on-one. There I realized how important it is to have that connection—not only with the devices helping them, but actually seeing that device, and how the change was effected. I made that connection with how much my PTs and my OTs had made an impact on my life, and I just wanted to do that, as well."

Among the POSO activities Lee-Hauser has organized and supported, she most values her first "Hearts for Soles" participation and the patient interaction it allowed.

Lexy Mahowald, current Century College OPSA president, has set her sights on working as an assistant at an O&P facility while she considers her future career direction. "Currently I'm a bartender to help pay for things, but my goal is to find an assistant position where I can learn the world of O&P and the move forward to do the master's."

She joined OPSA when a prosthetic instructor recommended it, and she was delegated rather than elected to the presidency. "I'm the kind of person that needs that kind of push. I'm still learning how to be the acting leader, and how to pull together and run a team."

The "Hearts to  Soles" project is one of her favorites as well—an opportunity to talk with patients while fitting them with Red Wing boots: "We cranked out two or three hundred pairs of shoes for people in need, and it was so great; there were smiles, everybody had fun."

She regards the OPSA members' visit to a professional conference as another important learning opportunity, as well as a chance to share with the community of people already in the profession, she noted.

"Our instructors told us to make connections, meet people, see what it's like. Connections are important; that's how you expand and grow in the field. I'm a hands-on kind of learner, so meeting the vendors—the people who create the liners, the pylons—it was great. It's easier for me to learn and remember and retain when I can interact and see. Those types of conferences are just great for students, I think."

Cory Cacciola, MSOP, a former University of Delaware O&P Club president, recently began a permanent job as O&P clinician with Hanger in New York, where he hopes to add research to his patient-care responsibilities. "Research brought me into the field, and I still enjoy it."

He learned about the fledgling O&P Club as a freshman engineering student, as it was getting started, and he heard its first guest speaker—an O&P professional who converted Cacciola on the spot to a career in O&P.

He assumed the club presidency in his senior year, while working on his bachelor's degree and doing research, with Arch as his mentor. "Our frequent discussions concerning what I enjoyed in our research ultimately led to her encouraging me to discover the clinical aspect of the field," he recalls.

His work on the award-winning, patent-pending Rehab to Go allowed him to learn how to talk to physical therapists, patients, and prosthetists, he says. "And as a student it really taught me about what I'll be doing; because now, in my job, I must communicate with physical therapists, other prosthetists, and learn from the patients—in order to provide the best possible care for my patients.

"I do know that my research with Dr. Arch and the O&P Club has opened so many doors for me in this field," he adds. "My research with her was on my resumé, and thanks to that, I was accepted into Baylor, where more opportunities came my way, including the master's research project. All these opportunities have come thanks to that."

"The O&P Club is an independent, proactive student organization," Arch responds. "Their energy drives it. They choose how much time and effort go into it. They can ask for help from university and community resources as needed.

"They might even learn more in the club than they do in their courses," she says.

What Should a Student Organization Do?

Education Experts Describe the Most Valuable Aspect of a Student O&P Organization. 

Eliza Arch, University of Delaware O&P  Club

The most valuable thing students gain from the club is the hands-on opportunities and independent experience of bringing a unique project to fruition, and working with others from other disciplines, sharing specialized knowledge and insights. Students benefit because this kind of…experience helps them get into [Master of Science in O&P] programs and post-graduate jobs. It shows that they can initiate and follow through with projects. And from a practical standpoint, it really looks good on a resumé.

It also reflects well on the school. Ever since the O&P Club has participated in the First Step program, they almost always win first place or some nice award. This is news the university can use in videos to publicize and promote the school.

It benefits the O&P field at large by having more students participating and recognizing their interest in the field early and gaining early experience that many graduate students don't have. 

Joanna Kenton, Century College OPSA

Building community and connections is probably the most important aspect of all, because we need to connect—we need to have each other's back and help each other out. Whether we are a patient or a new professional in the field, we're really designed to be a community. 

Goeran Fiedler, PhD, University of Pittsburgh POSO

With new students coming into the program every year, the first-year students certainly benefit from having a structured buddy system—teaming up with one of the second-year students to give them some guidance.

The fundraising efforts they undertake all raise awareness in the Pittsburgh community about the programs we have here at the school, and that P&O is one of those programs.

And as an officer in the organization, students find plenty of opportunities and a lot of responsibility, as well as a little exposure to that sort of organizational structure. That should be recognized as a positive down the road when people start their careers. 

Michael Cavanaugh, CPO, Northwestern University NUPOSS

A good student organization offers students the opportunity to be leaders amongst their peers, and to try to get their peers involved in various volunteer activities, whether for community involvement or professional development. Hopefully we're exposing them and preparing them to be the leaders in the profession as they graduate and move forward and participate in professional organizations.

Judith Philipps Otto is a freelance writer who has assisted with marketing and public relations for various clients in the O&P profession. She has been a newspaper writer and editor and has won national and international awards as a broadcast writer-producer.