How I became an OT (Occupational Therapist) in the U.S. LEGALLY.
The United States continues its debate on immigration. This is my story of how I became one of those statistics. Hopefully, based on my story, you the reader will be able to weigh in on what is fair, especially for those who come in with legal papers. This is my story:
It was 1983, when the first real discussions of what I want to be was asked by my parents. I was a sophomore in high school in the Philippines. In age terms, an 8th grader here in the U.S. and we were talking about college. The expectation was to get in to the premier state university of the nation – The University of the Philippines(UP). One, to get a great education from the top university, but more importantly for me, was to help my parents pay for the tuition. You see, getting in to UP meant a big, big, discount in tuition. How big? Let’s just say that my first semester tuition was around $35. Can you believe that??? 3rd, UP was only one of 2 schools that offered Occupational Therapy (OT). I get to go to school and still get to live at home. 4th, more important for the family, was the fact that OT could allow me one day to go the the USA.
How did we know that OT was going to be a ticket to the USA??? Well, my dad had a general idea, but it was research!!! My interest in the arts and medicine and my research pointed me to OT. This was actually my sophomore English class research paper. I don’t know why, but when I was in school, I really made my research papers functional for me – not only can I use it in class but use what I learned elsewhere. Then came my aunt from New Jersey, I remember she came home to the Philippines for my grandma’s wake and burial. She added more information on how the health related fields would help in getting in to the US.
From then on, it was about making good grades..actually great grades..it’s tough to get in to UP…you have to have great grades from freshman to senior year in high school and then do well in the NCEE ( National College Entrance Exam ) and UPCAT (UP College Admission Test)..and then PRAY!!!! Just when you think getting in was hard..graduating was even harder. The OT program was an accelerated 4 year program..8 semesters and 3 summer sessions..that’s right, no breaks!!! and an almost one year internship consisting of 7 rotations and what seemed to me a Masters level thesis that took a year and a half to finish. Then, just when you think you got your degree, comes the dreaded OT board exams..the Philippine board and AOTCB now NBCOT boards. After what seemed like months of preparation and sleepless nights, glad to say, passed them on the first try.
Then it was working time. Almost 3 years of pediatric work, trying to merge theory with clinical practice. It really helped me prepare for the future. It was also here that I had a relationship that had me thinking that I was in no position to raise a family here in the Philippines.I was just earning $100 per month as an OT, can’t afford my own home, buy a car or even support a spouse. I lived a pampered life but that was Dad and Mom’s money. Their money, not my money. And so, the motivation to do better struck me. It’s time to go out there and create a better life, and the United States of America was the promised land.
How to get there??? Job recruiters!!! There was lots of them. But I had help in choosing. My best friend, Gerry Parra, now a successful PT in Indiana, that’s who. He actually went to the US first, I do believe by 6 – 9 months, and was stationed in Cape Girardeau, MO. During this time, I had 5 offers, the first was in a nursing home in California, declined the offer – I did not want to work with older people. The 2nd, Alaska for $125,000. Declined it. Why? Well have you seen Cool Runnings, the Jamaican Bob-sled Team movie? specifically the moment they went out of the airport and met up with winter air..that was my vision…and coming from a tropical country myself…too cold I thought. 3rd, Hot Springs, Arkansas – somebody else went for the position. 4th, Memphis, TN – Methodist Central – somebody applied for the position, and 5th, Baptist Hospital Central. It was December 31, 1993. I got a call from Charles Clardy, Rehab Director for Acute Rehab, Baptist Hospital. We talked and enjoyed the conversation with him. Got a surprise of my life when he offered me the job right there and then.
So, the process began..posting the position in public as a requirement by the US Department of Labor, to make sure I am not taking away an American citizens’ job. And when no one wants the job, the Labor department issues you a Labor Certification which you now present to the Immigration service so that you can get a work visa. But, before you can get the visa, you have to go to the US Embassy to have an interview with a consulate officer. Nerve wracking at that time, one wrong comment and I can still be denied entry. With the Lord’s grace everything went smoothly. It has taken almost 4 months since the offer but finally I am US bound.
I left the Philippines and my loved ones on April 8, 1994, 8 PM, Manila Time. I unofficially entered the US through Hawaii, just because it was a stop over. The real port of entry was San Francisco. Again nerve wracking, I hope I say the right things to the customs officer. It would be a shame to be sent back home. I hope I did not bring anything that they did not want to see. Again, with the Lord’s grace. I had the nicest time with the customs officer..a great welcome from the United States of America. The first friends to see me in San Francisco, Amer de Juan and Rochelle Portugal..they were nice enough to see me at the airport as I waited for my connecting flight to Dallas and then Memphis.
April 8, 1994 at 8:30 AM, Central Standard Time, I landed in Memphis, TN. My home for the next 18 years. First person to meet me was Charles Clardy himself. Funny thing when I was leaving the airport, I had my Cool Runnings moment, I did not realize that the airport was heated, there was no such thing in our airport in the Philippines, only air conditioning to cool the building. As the sliding doors opened, 40 degree air met me..and I froze..I left the Philippines with 94 degree air!!! Being a Friday, I was relegated to work on my jet lag. The weekend, I was introduced to the US life by my Uncle and Aunt Rey and Venus Garibay. First stop, Tunica, MS.
I worked for Baptist for 3 years. 3 years that really taught me about my profession better and what professional is. Mentored by Charles and Becky (sorry, can’t remember her last name) and at times Ann Lindberg (Super OT’s!!!), they shaped me and held me to a higher standard of practice, to which I am grateful to this day. I was greatly supported day to day by my adopted mother, Nancy Holliday, not to mention Robert Marion and “E”. I decided to transfer to another job because Baptist declined my request to sponsor me for a green card, so that I can stay and work there indefinitely. Immigration rules at this point say that I can only stay a maximum of 6 years unless I get a green card.
And that was when Snelling / MTX therapy came into view. Joe and Cora Reynolds offered me the green card that I was seeking, in exchange of course for working for their company, which I am glad to say made me one of their Professional Employee of the year in 1998. I am thankful to the Lord for them because at this time, with the advent of PPS in the Medicare system, foreign trained therapists with work visas were being laid off left and right. They decided to hold on to their promise of sponsoring not only my green card but their other therapists as well. They could have easily asked us to just pack up and go back home. They were instrumental in what would be my present work.
In 2000, I finally got my green card. A permanent resident of the United States of America. Joe and Cora had planted the seed of owning my own business and that’s what I first did with 2 partners until it ended in 2006. It was at this time, that I thank the Lord for giving me the wisdom, the patience, a supportive wife and a supportive base of old clients that made my wife and me open up our very own therapy practice called Therapy Hut. Finally after 10 years of having a green card, my petition to become a US citizen was granted. I officially became a United States citizen on November 2010.
So, as America continues to debate what is fair and not in immigration. I just hope that they get to see the sacrifices of people like me who try to get in to the United States of America, the Land of Opportunity, the Promised Land, LEGALLY!!!