HANCEVILLE, Ala. — Dozens of students entering the Occupational Therapy Assistant and Physical Therapist Assistant programs at Wallace State Community College were surely nervous as they attended orientation in advance of starting classes in a couple of weeks. But there were some people there that day to ease them through their initial anxiety.

During lunch the students had the chance to talk with people who have all been exactly where they are in that moment – nervous about starting classes, anxious as to what’s in store, wondering if they’re going to make it through the next two years, and what they can look forward to when they do.

OTA alumni Matthew Ergle and Candice Parris and PTA alumnus Stephen Barnett were all once new students in the programs.

New Wallace State Community College Occupational Therapy student Ricky Holifield, left, of Birmingham, greets OTA alumni Matthew Ergle at the recent OTA/PTA Alumni Connection.

New Wallace State Community College Occupational Therapy student Ricky Holifield, left, of Birmingham, greets OTA alumni Matthew Ergle at the recent OTA/PTA Alumni Connection.

Ergle, who graduated in 2016, remembers sitting down at a similar event as a new student and getting to speak to a graduate of the program who was working in the industry he hoped to join. Now, two years later, he’s on the other side of the table, helping other students.

“I think it’s important to give back, especially in a school like Wallace,” Ergle said. “The atmosphere is very family-oriented. Whenever they ask me for the opportunity to come back and impart some knowledge, I thought it was a chance to give back to something that gave so much to me.”

As a new student, he said he thought hearing the comments from those who had completed the program helped give him an inside view on what to expect. “It kind of prepared me for the program a little bit better,” he said. “I wasn’t so shocked going in the first couple of days.”

Parris, who attended for the second time as an alumni, said an event like this wasn’t offered when graduated in 2005, but added she would have loved to have had such an opportunity back then.

“Thinking back to when I was a student, I wish that we would have had something like this,” she said. “I wish that I could have talked to somebody who’s been there and done that and somebody who’s been out in the field, whether it’s a few years or whether it’s 13 like myself or even more than that. To get that advice and to talk to someone who’s been there, the different types of settings there are and what you can expect and things like that. It’s important to have that kind of knowledge going into the program.”

Ergle works for Restore Therapy Services in Double Springs and Parris works for Alabama HomeCare.

Stephen Barnett, right, 2005 graduate of the Wallace State Community College Physical Therapist Assistant program, talks with new PTA students Carley Wooten, left, of Hackleburg, and Tony Skellett or Blountsville.

Stephen Barnett, right, 2005 graduate of the Wallace State Community College Physical Therapist Assistant program, talks with new PTA students Carley Wooten, left, of Hackleburg, and Tony Skellett or Blountsville.

A 2005 graduate of the PTA program, Barnett works for Kindred at Home Physical Therapy. This was his fourth or fifth time attending the luncheon and meeting with new students.

“I enjoy meeting the new students,” Barnett said. “As the years have progressed, they seem more knowledgeable about what they’re getting into. When I first started doing this there were a lot of questions. They didn’t really know what they were getting into as far as career choices, different areas of physical therapy that they could do.”

He employs a little tough love to encourage the students to stay on track.

“I like to scare them a little bit,” he said. “I tell them these are the classes that are going to absolutely kill you and don’t get behind. If you need help, get help.

“I talk to them about how important it is to work with your classmates. I was very fortunate that our class was extremely close, a lot of group study. So just build some memories and friends while you’re in the program. Since you’re going to spend the rest of your life helping people, now would be the time to start.”

Barnett said he would have appreciated similar advice as a new student in the program, starting out on the path of his second career. He’d previously earned a bachelor degree and worked in marketing before making the switch.

“I had bad study habits,” he admits. “It would have been nice if someone would have pulled me off to the side and said I know you have a degree, but this is nothing like you’ve ever experienced before, this is the way to get ready for it.”

Wallace State’s OTA and PTA programs are each five-semester programs offering an Associate in Applied Science. A competitive application process is used to select students for entry each fall. Applications are accepted from March 1 to June 1 each year.

For more information about these and other programs offered at Wallace State, visit www.wallacestate.edu or call 256.352.8000. For information about the Wallace State Alumni Association, visit www.wsccalumni.org or call 256.352.7842.