From visitor to student to faculty, SHRP alum comes full circle
Published on Monday, June 14, 2021
By: Bruce Coleman
For most School of Health Related Professions graduates, the school serves as a launching pad for occupations that take them on journeys of health care service throughout the state, where their passion for improving the well-being of others impacts the lives of their fellow Mississippians.
For some, like 2021 SHRP Alum of the Year Dr. Penny Rogers, that road to a rewarding career in allied health services leads right back home.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center first became deeply ingrained in Rogers’ childhood memory as a place of healing and hope when her little brother, a leukemia patient, received treatment in the old circular Children’s Circle, long before the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children had been established.
Rogers remembers accompanying her mother and father on visits to see her brother at UMMC during her teenage years.
“The doctors were so loving and kind to my parents,” Rogers remembered. “I remember thinking, as I was walking down the hallways here, that I’d really like to do something here, that it would be just amazing to work here.
“It’s something I never dreamed I’d actually get to do.”
After obtaining her Associate of Science Degree from East Central Community College in Decatur, Rogers earned her BS in occupational therapy at UMMC in 1995. Her vocational trajectory led her throughout the state, initially as a senior occupational therapist covering a six-county area for the Sta-Home Health Agency with stints in senior care and student services in the towns of Forest and Kosciusko and the counties of Leake and Attala. After she served as an instructor and program director in the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at Holmes Community College in Ridgeland, her career took her to Carthage, where she was a staff occupational therapist at Performance Therapy, and on to Philadelphia, where she was a rehabilitation supervisor at Neshoba General Hospital nursing home, inpatient and outpatient departments.
Yet it ultimately brought her back to SHRP, where she has served in the Occupational Therapy Department since 2011. Just this year, she achieved the rank of professor in the department, where her stated goal is to “continue to strive for excellence in the areas of teaching, service and research scholarship.”
Rogers’ desire to “be a leader, lifelong learner and futurist in the field of occupational therapy through best practices in education, management, research and patient/client care” and to “advocate for the profession of occupational therapy through community partnership and development of capstone experiences that will propel the practice of occupational therapy in new, emerging practice areas” has drawn admiration from her peers in the school.
In nominating her for the alum award, Dr. Robin Davis, professor of occupational therapy in SHRP, emphasized Rogers’ numerous roles in clinical and educational leadership, her contributions to state and national occupational therapy associations and her volunteer efforts within the local community.
“Her endless energy, entrepreneurial spirit, love for her profession, teaching, students and co-workers make her stand out among her peers,” Davis said. “There is no question that Dr. Rogers is deserving of recognition for her joyful demeanor and selfless contributions to her profession, to SHRP and future generations of graduates.”
Each year, a committee comprised of SHRP Alumni Board members honors a SHRP graduate who has made an “outstanding contribution in the areas of leadership, service and achievement in their professional discipline while enhancing the image” of SHRP.
Dr. Jessica H. Bailey, dean of SHRP, said Rogers’ achievements are almost tailor-made for the award.
“Dr. Rogers is quite an asset to SHRP,” Bailey said. “She is not only an expert in her field of occupational therapy, but is also an advocate of well-being and creating the best health possible for every student and patient she encounters.
“I’ve known Dr. Rogers for almost 50 years and consider her to have the biggest servant’s heart I have ever experienced in an individual. It is our honor to have her recognized as our 2021 Alum of the Year.”
A career with such distinction had surprisingly humble beginnings. Rogers, who says she is happy serving in the role of pastor’s wife, had married and started a family at an early age. She said she wasn’t sure what her career options were until Dr. Ed King, who was recruiting for SHRP at ECCC, introduced her to the world of occupational therapy.
“I had been looking at the medical field or possibly becoming a teacher,” Rogers said. “Both sounded exciting, and as a ‘people person,’ I felt like I could do either.”
When King asked if she had considered occupational therapy, Rogers began researching the subject and discovered many aspects of the discipline that appealed to her.
“I found our roots run very deep in terms of psychology and utilizing different methods to address people’s physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs,” she said. “What really attracted me to occupational therapy was the fact it was so much like me. I love art. I love music. I love crafts. I love therapeutic intervention, anything that would be meaningful to someone’s life.
“I said, ‘This is me.’”
She read a brochure King had given her from UMMC, but almost gave up on the dream before it had even begun.
“I saw I had to have physics, and I was afraid I wouldn’t do well,” she said. But with the urging of her family, “I knew deep down that if I really tried, I could do it.
“To be honest I don’t really know how I did it - caring for my family and going to school full-time. Only God allowed me to do it. The opportunity to come to UMMC was given to me, and I didn’t want to waste it.”
As a nontraditional student a bit older than her classmates, Rogers acknowledged experiencing a fear of failure. It was a concern that helped fuel her determination throughout her academic career.
“It made me strive to do better,” she said. “Then once I was able to get my degree, I just wanted to get back to SHRP. The way I was raised, you were part of the community, and there were things I wanted to do for this community.”
It was a desire that never abandoned her, despite her vocational meanderings throughout the state.
“When I look back at the opportunity I had to be in this school, to have the faculty members I had that really shaped what my career would be, it was truly an honor,” she said. “SHRP just taught me so much about the community and networking. It wasn’t just about OT. I could be a part of the community with other disciplines as well.
“it made me really want to give back more.”
She received the opportunity to return to UMMC in 2011 when, as a rehab supervisor in a rural setting, Rogers was recruited back to the school by SHRP faculty members.
“I had taught in the Holmes Community College Occupational Therapy Assistant Program and I loved teaching, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to teach on the university level,” she said. “When I was asked to join the faculty, it frightened me because I didn’t know if I had the knowledge needed to teach OT students.
“But as an OT, I realized I was already a teacher: I work with patients and teach them. I had worked in pediatrics and in home health, I had experience in orthopaedics in an outpatient clinic and I understood rehabilitation management. All of those were areas where SHRP was needing teachers to fill in the gap.”
Dr. Christy Morgan, chair of the Occupational Therapy Department, said she had known Rogers for a long time and was interested in bringing her “passion and talent” to the graduate program.
“Dr. Rogers and I have had an interwoven professional path for over 25 years,” Morgan said. “We first met taking prerequisite courses together for occupational therapy. She was accepted into the UMMC OT program a year ahead of me, and she later selected me to be her ‘little sister’ for a mentoring program between students.”
Several years later, the pair reunited to develop an occupational therapy assistant program at HCC.
“We have a very strong occupational therapy faculty team at the School of Health Related Professions, and Dr. Rogers is an essential member of our team,” Morgan said. “She is steadfast in her determination to promote occupational therapy and fervently believes in the value of our profession.
“Dr. Rogers has a ‘cup half full’ view of everything. I recall growing up watching the movie Pollyanna and the positive attitude that the character had throughout that movie in spite of very challenging circumstances. Penny is a professional Pollyanna. She always has a smile on her face and an eager attitude to help others, especially our students.”
Rogers’ decision to join the SHRP faculty paid immediate dividends.
“I couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to come be a part of the faculty,” she said. “The students teach us so much. They drive us to be who we are. They keep us young, they keep us learning - I have to stay way ahead of the game.
“I have to keep striving for opportunities in research, scholarship and service which are the three mission areas of our university.”
Those opportunities necessitated her pursuit of another ambition she had harbored since first stepping foot on UMMC’s campus - to one day achieve a doctoral degree.
“When I was being interviewed (for the faculty position in SHRP), they asked me if I had wanted to get a terminal degree,” Rogers said. “I had achieved my master’s in teaching while I had been working, but that goal of achieving a doctorate degree had always been in my mind.
“I had searched and searched for the right terminal degree that would help me become a better instructor, to become a better faculty member, team member and community member. When I sat down with Dr. Jessica Bailey and she described the new DHA program in our school, what she talked about was everything I had been looking for in a program.”
The DHA program promised Rogers an opportunity to apply what she had learned in research by developing a project that would be beneficial to the school. Her enthusiasm caught the eye of Dr. Mitzi Norris, executive director of the Health Sciences Program in SHRP, who said Rogers stood out among many candidates in the first cohort of the program.
“Her poise and grace impressed me,” Norris said. “She looked very professional. I think that is a very prominent characteristic of Dr. Rogers. She is a consummate professional in whatever role - as a student and as a teacher. She is committed to her discipline of occupational therapy, and she is committed to her students.
“Dr. Rogers is always willing to reach out to stretch students and provide exemplar experiences.”
For example, Norris recalled how Rogers organized educational opportunities for her students from a single casual conversation.
"A few years ago, I told her about a Parkinson’s group that met at my church,” Norris said. “Before I knew it, she had set up rotations for her students. The students’ knowledge was enhanced and the Parkinson’s participants certainly benefited.”
Rogers employed her expertise in occupational therapy education to develop her DHA project, “The University of Mississippi Community Health Advocacy Training Program: A Review and Evaluation.”
“I was teaching community health and wellness when I got involved with the Community Advocacy Program, which allowed me to help students understand health disparities in our state and how they could help people,” said Rogers, who serves as a core trainer in the program. “We teach lay people in the community how to screen for things like low blood sugar or high blood pressure.
“It means so much to me to reach out to so many people and let them see how our university cares about them and their health. That makes a real difference.”
After three hard years as a student and full-time employee, Rogers earned her DHA in 2015. One year later, she received the SHRP DHA Award.
“To know Penny is to recognize her gifts of patience, wisdom, discernment and servanthood,” said Dr. Deborah L. Minor, professor of medicine and chair of the advisory committee for Rogers’ doctoral research project. “Penny has brought to UMMC a wealth of experience and an infectious enthusiasm for learning, teaching, inter-professional education and collaborations, and community engagement. She clearly enjoys helping others excel and is willing to invest in their success, providing guidance and handling all obstacles in her calm and professional manner.
“Penny’s expertise in the areas of safety, ergonomics and injury prevention is widely recognized and well respected among her peers and our trainees. I personally am grateful to Penny and have benefited from her guidance and friendship over the years, knowing I can always put my absolute trust in her direction.”
Rogers’ commitment to the principles of the institution have stood out well beyond SHRP’s classrooms and hallways. In 2017, she was named the school’s representative to UMMC’s Nelson Order of Teaching Excellence, the institution’s highest honor for teachers as selected by their students and peers and as recommended by the deans of their respective schools.
"The day I was told I was to be recognized as a Nelson Order faculty member I was so honored that I became a little emotional,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘What had I really done?’ The most meaningful thing to me, on the plaque, it says ‘You are cited by your students.’ That probably meant more to me than anything.
“My students recognized my desire to instill in them the love that I have for my profession, the love I have for my state, wanting to make it a healthier place. I probably didn’t realize what all the Nelson Order stood for until that day.”
Being listed among the best instructors at the state’s only academic health sciences center inspired Rogers to accomplish even more for her students.
“When something like that happens, you’re so honored, but it also builds a fire underneath you,” she said. “I realized I need to dig deeper, because there’s so much more I need to tell my students. It helped me to become a more accomplished teacher.”
Part of that accomplishment is relating the importance of participation in community service and professional organizations, which help students stay “plugged in” to information and resources vital to their continual occupational therapy service.
"In school, I came to realize it was important to become part of state and national organizations,” said Rogers, who is an active member of the Mississippi Occupational Therapy Association and has been a member of such professional groups as the American Occupational Therapy Association, the American Association of Cardio and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and the World Federation of Occupational Therapy. “I realized if I wanted to advance in my career, it was important for me to get involved.
“I was secretary-treasurer (of MSOTA) one term and then I was able to do a lot of networking though our national organizations while I served two terms as the Mississippi Representative Assembly member, which is the governing body of AOTA. That’s where I really learned the value of scholarship and research. It wasn’t until I got active with the national OT association that I was able to drive home to students how important it is to be a part of national and state associations.”
That experience, along with her natural ‘people person’ skills, drove her to volunteer as SHRP’s capstone coordinator. She said she cherishes the opportunity to help match students with internship sites throughout the state.
“I love to be out and about in the community, making new friends and learning things,” she said. “Students are with us in class for two full years, and then they have a 14-week capstone experience. I didn’t know how much work it was going to be!”
OT students complete a pair of three-month clinical assignments, then choose one of four treks to participate in a capstone experience. These treks include clinical specialty, administration, leadership, and research and education. Rogers helps match students with capstone internships within their preselected treks.
“I have the greatest job ever because I get to follow these students for 14 weeks, assign them an OT mentor and capstone faculty project advisor, because they have to produce a tangible product and have to disseminate a capstone project,” Rogers said. “It has been so much fun and I have been able to put so many OTs out into the community in settings where people still don’t really have knowledge about what an OT does.
“So we’ve really been able to advocate for our profession.”
She is such an advocate of her school, in fact, that one of her eight grandchildren recently obtained her Master’s Degree in MRI from SHRP.
That advocacy is part and parcel to Rogers being selected the school’s 2021 Alumnus of the Year, an honor she said rises near the top of all her professional accolades.
“Because I love the School of Health Related Professions so much, It was such an honor to receive this award,” she said. “I kept thinking of how many more people in the school were so deserving of this award. I know so many graduates from so many other programs in SHRP that, when I was told I was chosen for this award, I couldn’t even describe the emotion I felt.
“I just cannot say enough about my school here, just being a part of UMMC and what it’s meant to me.”
Now when she walks down the hallways that once led to the old Children’s Hospital, Rogers immediately thinks back to the visits she and her parents made to see her brother and the care and compassion her family received during one of the darkest times of their lives.
In essence, she’s now come full circle.
“There’s a special place in my heart, and now that I’m here, I cannot express how honored I am to work here,” she said. “The doctors here were amazing, they cared for all of us - they didn’t just care for the patient, they cared for the whole family. They wrapped their arms around each of us and it meant so much.
“Thanks to that experience, now I have the most fun career in the world because I get to do everything I love to do when we have all the students back here. I don’t think of it as work, and I get to do it every day. I love coming to work.”