Grad Profile: Trading in her Realtor License to Help People Reclaim their Lives

Grad Profile: Trading in her Realtor License to Help People Reclaim their Lives

In her 40s, Christine Pappas graduates from Rutgers' occupational therapy assistant program first in her class

Christine Pappas with sons, left to right, Daniel and Gary.
Photo: Courtesy Christine Pappas

'When I help a person who does not know how to get into a wheelchair learn those skills and become independent, it’s a feeling like no other.'
 – Christine Pappas

Christine Pappas knows a thing or two about reinvention. The 44-year-old divorced mother of two adult sons had an established real estate career when she decided it was time for a major change. Her life was in transition, and her priorities had shifted: She wanted to spend her days making a positive difference in people’s lives.

She decided her second career would be in health care – she just didn’t know exactly where.

“I was a real estate agent when I got divorced, and then I switched into the mortgage business because it was more stable than 100 percent commission,” says Pappas. “I had been considering a new career that would fulfill me more at this time in my life, but motivation can be a bit difficult when you’re older.”

Then, the Haskell resident got laid off, and suddenly the road before her seemed clear. Pappas enrolled in classes for a job in radiography or ultrasound technology but soon knew those pursuits didn’t fit her goals. “I wanted a job in which I could build a relationship with the patient and establish a rapport – rather than just see them for only a few minutes,” she says.

While seeking out other opportunities in 2012, she discovered the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions was launching an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program. “I had no idea what OT was, but I did a lot of research and talked to people in the profession to understand what they do day to day – and I knew it was a perfect match for me,” Pappas says.

Christine Pappas in Class
Christine Pappas, right, uses levers to understand how the body engages with objects in the environment. This teaches students how to therapeutically work with patients of varying abilities.
Photo: Courtesy SHRP Occupational Therapy Assistant program
Rutgers’ OTA program – the only such program in New Jersey accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education – trains individuals to work under the supervision of occupational therapists. OTA assistants provide intervention to people of all ages who are challenged by disability, trauma or the aging process to develop, recover and improve the skills needed for daily living. Students like Pappas who attend Rutgers full time after completing all pre-professional courses graduate in a year and a half with an associate of science degree.

After she receives her degree, Pappas will celebrate as a member of the OTA program’s inaugural graduating class having earned the class’s highest grade-point average and SHRP’s Academic Achievement Award for exceptional performance and dedication in her program.

“Christine asked questions in a manner that demonstrated her concern and empathy for her future clients, says Catherine Colucci, the OTA program director. “She set high goals and immersed herself in learning through her fieldwork. She was a role model for the entire class.”

As an older student, Pappas is representative of many of her fellow classmates. “Students enter this program with diverse experience – some are just establishing their educational and professional lives, others bring experiences from previous careers and still others are returning to the role of a student after many years,” Colucci says.

Pappas is grateful for the support of her sons, Daniel, 23, and Gary, 27, who were teenagers when their mother attended night school to earn her high school diploma. “Immediately after that, I studied to get my real estate license,” Pappas says. “They have seen me work hard to get what I wanted in life.”

Gary says he is inspired by the way his mother has worked through the challenges of being an older student – balancing family, friends and all of the responsibilities of being a single homeowner – to pursue her dream career. “She taught me to never give up,” he says, “and by seeing how much time and effort she has put in to changing her career made me realize that she is right: Hard work and persistence will pay off.”

Although Pappas enjoyed her career in real estate, occupational therapy has brought her a new level of fulfillment. “People were always happy when they closed on a house they loved,” she says. “But when I help a person who does not know how to get into a wheelchair learn those skills and become independent – or other small things we all take for granted – it’s a feeling like no other.”

Pappas recently passed the national exam to become a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant and now volunteers at Horizon High School for children with special needs in Livingston, where she completed fieldwork education. She hopes to obtain her state license soon and secure a full-time job.

The greatest challenge of being a returning student, Pappas says, is self-motivation. “I’m a motivated person, but as an older student you can get a little insecure,” she says. “You worry about starting a new career and succeeding. But honestly, it’s never too late to make a change in your life and go back to school.”