On Sept. 10, leaders from the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy joined their counterparts at Peking University Health Sciences Center (PUHSC) to welcome the first class of students enrolled in the universities’ new dual-degree program in occupational therapy. With addresses from faculty and student representatives, ribbon cutting and white coat ceremonies and a customary break for morning tea, the program that will train a new generation of Chinese occupational therapists is now officially underway.

“It’s almost like a dream come true,” said Zhou Mouwang, PUHSC professor of rehabilitation medicine and the director of the rehabilitation medicine department at Peking University Third Hospital. “This program increases the educational level of OT in China from bachelor to doctorate, which is a remarkable milestone to the profession and the history of rehabilitation medicine.”

That milestone has been nearly three years in the making.

In October 2016, USC and PUHSC — both members of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities — announced a partnership to open one of China’s first graduate programs specializing in occupational therapy. Those plans were set in motion two years earlier, in 2014, thanks to the multimillion dollar gift from USC Trustee Ronnie C. Chan MBA ’76 and his wife, Barbara. A portion of the Chans’ gift was earmarked for establishing a new partnership with an elite Chinese university in order to expand occupational therapy research, education and practice in the nation of 1.3 billion people.

During the past three years, delegates from both institutions have been working together to adapt USC Chan’s master’s-level curriculum, recruit potential Chinese students and disseminate best practices and knowledge at various conferences throughout Asia. The faculty members leading the young program at PUHSC, considered among China’s most prestigious higher education institutions, are also Trojans themselves.

“I am very honored to be part of this important collaboration, and excited to celebrate the culmination of more than three years of collaborative work,” said Julie McLaughlin Gray, PhD, OTR/L, USC Chan’s associate chair for curriculum and faculty and the director of the China Initiative. “I have every confidence this will make a significant contribution to the development of OT in China, and ultimately, the occupations and health of the Chinese people.”

Occupational therapy as understood in Chinese educational and health care contexts historically falls under a generic “rehabilitation therapy” label. Therefore, students in the USC–PUHSC dual-degree program will take two years of courses at PUHSC to earn a master’s degree in rehabilitation therapy. They will then attend USC’s one-year, post-professional doctorate of occupational therapy (OTD) program in Los Angeles. By the fall of 2022, the first dual-degree graduates will begin nurturing the profession throughout mainland China.

The program promises to continue the educational evolution of occupational therapy in China by ultimately building a workforce capable of providing high-quality clinical services to the estimated 85 million Chinese living with, or at risk for, a disability.

“OT treats every patient with true heart, starts from all aspects of the body and mind, and leads patients to find the meaning of life in the most common way,” said Chen Gong, one of the six students in the inaugural class. “We are very lucky to be admitted to this program so that we can engage in the cause that is truly beneficial to the people of China.”

— Mike McNulty