The flowing mane, the sleekness of form, and the large, gentle brown eyes make it easy to become enthralled by all things equine. But for Taylor Covington’s elementary-school-aged self, it was the people on the horses who intrigued her more. And no, these were not formal dressage riders, spunky rodeo souls, or fast jockeys. Instead, they were people involved in hippotherapy, a therapeutic riding program.

At the time, her family were volunteers, and Covington watched lessons, helped set up fundraising events, and got to know the riders. This was the beginning of a long-term passion that spurred her interest in becoming an occupational therapist. Later, she volunteered as a soccer coach for children with disabilities. In high school, she joined the unified basketball team, which empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to take part in sports together.

“These experiences exposed me to various types of therapy and the diverse populations that qualify for such treatment,” said the graduating senior, who is majoring in human development and minoring in disabilities studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I quickly learned of the vital role occupational therapy plays in ensuring individuals can access the freedom to actively and independently experience the beautiful lives we are given. I want to ensure that all people, no matter their age, experience, culture, or background, can access the care they deserve and know that I will advocate for them and their rights in all circumstances.” 

Covington was a business major when she first started at Virginia Tech, but upon joining the Occupational Therapy Club, she found a group of students united in their passion for that profession. In getting to know her peers, she learned about their majors, and discovered human development. 

“They became such great mentors to me, especially the seniors,” she said. “When I heard about their experiences and what classes they were taking, I found them more aligned with my interests. So, I switched majors.”

In Covington’s first year as a human development major, Koeun Choi, director of the Cognitive Developmental Science Lab at Virginia Tech, offered her students an opportunity to become involved with research. During Covington’s sophomore year, she became a research assistant in the lab. 

“It was a cool way to see and be part of all that goes into the research process and its complexities,” she said. “I’ve learned the importance of evidence-based practice and how it affects children’s learning and development in the way they interact with technology. And this research is going to impact the work I do in the future, as well.”

She sees herself working as an occupational therapist in a pediatric setting with younger children with disabilities.

“I’m really interested in early intervention and working with families to educate them on ways that can supplement and improve their child’s quality of life,” she said.

This realization came after her experience shadowing others in the field. She saw consistent examples of therapists building relationships with their clients and coworkers. They showed compassion through clinical interventions, addressed individual needs unique to each person they served, and empowered clients to reach their full potential. She discovered how important collaboration is among therapists, clients, their families, and the other professionals involved with occupational therapy.  

She recalled one man’s rehabilitation after he had been in a devastating motor vehicle accident, which stripped him of his active and independent life.

“He was now fully dependent on his family, nurses, physical therapists, and occupational therapists,” Covington said. “Over the few weeks I observed his treatments, I was astonished to witness the transformation taking place. The resilience and dedication of both the client and therapists were unquestionable. His treatment team never wavered in their pursuit to help, and I witnessed him regain the strength and confidence to return to the activities that were most important to him. That first walk across the rehabilitation gym would have never been possible without the ability of the therapists to act as both leaders and team members.”

After graduation, Covington plans to pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. 

But before then, as a culmination of her time at Virginia Tech, she received the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society Senior Medallion. The society awards a medallion to a graduating senior with the highest academic standing in each college. 

“I have been working closely with Taylor for over two years as her primary supervisor in my research lab,” said Choi. “Taylor is a motivated and competent student who is particularly interested in supporting children and families through occupational therapy. I am fortunate to benefit from her enthusiasm, creativity, and leadership, and she has my strongest support for this honor.”  

Covington was both surprised and honored to receive the medallion but said her experiences volunteering and pursuing experiential learning opportunities have gifted her with a desire to continue to grow her knowledge and skills to build a sound foundation for future practice.

“Occupational therapy has led me to learn new things and take steps out of my comfort zone,” she said, “from witnessing the life-changing possibilities of assistive technologies to standing on stage singing karaoke for the first time with a young woman with autism. I have found a new sense of confidence in knowing I am exactly where I am supposed to be, helping others improve their quality of life.” 

Written by Leslie King and Mary Szczerban, a communication sciences and social inquiry major.