Saturday, November 6, 2010

Graduate Student of the Month: Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith
Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies
November 2010

Rachel Smith is a doctoral student in the department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Studies at Indiana University. She is studying leisure behavior with a concentration in Therapeutic Recreation, and she owes her career choice to her college roommate from freshman year.

IU Graduate Student Rachel Smith
“My roommate had a boyfriend,” Rachel said. “One Thursday, I was going into my room and it was ‘occupied.’ I decided I didn’t want to eat dinner by myself at 4:30 pm, so I went to this review section for my statistics class over in the HPER building. I wasn’t really sure where it was exactly because I hadn’t been to one of the labs yet that semester, and it was already October, but I finally found it and I took a seat. After a little while I realized I had gone to the wrong room. It ended up being an interest meeting for the Therapeutic Recreation club that puts on all these weekend camps for kids with developmental disabilities. I was so embarrassed I volunteered for all their camps.”

A few years later, Rachel graduated from the University of Tennessee in English and Psychology and got into law school, just as she had planned. “It was terrible. I left one of the sessions on the introductory day for law school and called one of my professors -- ‘Doc’ was his name -- I said, ‘hey Doc, do you have room for one more grad student this semester?’ He said, ‘Yup’ and I filled out the paperwork and started right then.”

What is therapeutic recreation? Rachel says it’s an allied health service in the same vein as occupational or physical therapy focusing on the use of recreation to restore, remediate and rebuild function. In her work, Rachel looks at ways to use physical activity and leisure as a way of decreasing obesity and increasing social functioning in patients, specifically in children with autism.

She works on four different research teams, three of which are currently putting out research articles: the Therapeutic Recreation Research Team; Severe Mental Illness Research Team; Bradford Woods Research; and Disability Studies in Physical Activity Research Team. Rachel has also been highly active within her discipline at IU -- teaching, serving as a leader amongst her peers, and presenting her research at national conferences.

Her pride and joy, however, is in developing and running the Physical Activity and Social Skills Development (PASSD) service learning program. The PASSD program partners Indiana University Therapeutic Recreation (TR) with Stone Belt, one of the oldest and largest service providers for individuals with developmental disabilities in south central Indiana. Through the program, TR students at IU receive training opportunities and the Stone Belt participants are provided with high quality TR services.

“I get to help people live a higher quality of life,” she said. “Physical therapy can teach someone to use their knee again, but recreational therapists come in and ask ‘now that you can walk, what do you want to do, what do you love to do’ -- let’s do that to help you. We look at that next step.”

For example, Rachel taught children with autism to rock climb then helped them start a rock climbing club at their school. The children will then be seen as successful at something by their classmates, she said, sometimes for the first time ever.

“Children tend to see other children with autism at their worst point, at school, because that’s the hardest [place for children with autism to fit in]. If people knew me only as the person who is terrible at being still, for the thing I was worst at, for example, it would be a really hard life to live,” she said.

“I like to turn that on it’s head, so the child with autism is the expert -- the best climber in the group -- so the children are modeling after them instead of the other children being the model. A lot of times children will forget about the autism part then. ‘Oh he’s such a great climber!’ It really does change the way other people perceive [children with autism], and to be truly accepted in a community, you need to be perceived as being related, being competent and connected.”

Rachel works on inclusion and community integration, she said. For children with autism having trouble integrating into a school, recreation can serve as a bridge into that community.

“To me, recreation and leisure are the true universal languages because people can’t necessarily play better than other people. They can play differently than other people, but the skills can be taught and practiced,” she said.

Therapeutic Recreation is what Rachel calls a discovery major. “Almost everyone you meet has a story, because people don’t know about it -- it’s something you have to discover. And I’m very glad I did because I think I’d be an unhappy lawyer.”