International Interests Lead to Fulbright for OT Alumnus

Occupational therapy alumnus Denis Tuttle, BS/MS '16.

Occupational therapy alumnus Denis Tuttle, BS/MS '16, recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant.

Published July 1, 2021

International experiences—professional and otherwise—seem to be in Denis Tuttle’s blood. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he was a natural fit for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the prestigious national competition that provides grants for individually designed study/research projects.

Tuttle recently received a Fulbright for study/research in Thailand, where he will examine the impact of occupational therapy intervention on reported caregiver burden.

Tuttle received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in occupational therapy from UB in 2016. He recently moved back home to Upstate New York for the summer in preparation for his 10 months in Thailand starting in October.

Tell us about the work that resulted in your Fulbright grant.

While at UB I tried to take advantage of a lot of different opportunities that were available. I was heavily involved on campus in general, but also within the Occupational Therapy (OT) program. My sophomore year, having room in my schedule and wanting to learn more, I was a research assistant for Dr. [Machiko] Tomita with her “Effects of Virtual-Group Exercise at Home (V-GEAH)” study. This was my first experience into research, but it involved both technology and older adults, two things I am passionate about. The research project requirement of the OT program and associated classes was another opportunity for me to gain a greater understanding of research.  

I have worked in acute rehabilitation, acute care and PACE (Program for All Inclusive Care of the Elderly). This has given me experience with the aging population in various settings and levels of independence.

In 2019, I went to South East Asia on a backpacking trip. While I was in Thailand, I reached out through the World Federation of Occupational Therapy to the OT representative in Thailand to learn more about OT there. I was connected with the Occupational Therapy Department at Chiang Mai University (CMU) and met with them. This led to my coming back to Thailand after going to a few other countries and giving a presentation to the CMU faculty about OT in the U.S. related to cerebrovascular accidents, traumatic brain injury, and major multiple traumas.

After returning to the U.S., I looked at ways to incorporate my love for international experiences and OT. This led me to looking further into [the Fulbright program] and working with faculty to put together an application. As part of the research/study application, you need an affiliated university. I found faculty within the CMU OT program that were willing to work with me. Since leaving Thailand, I have stayed in touch with the department and gave another presentation open to OTs in Thailand sharing my experience working in an acute-care hospital during [the COVID-19 pandemic].

The burden of geriatric caregiving has economic and emotional impacts for families. I want to do my research project in Thailand because of the culture of familial caregiving.

Why did you decide to get a degree in OT, and at UB in particular?

In high school I was a waiter at an assisted living facility. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the population and knew I wanted to continue working with them. I also knew I wanted to work in the medical field. The holistic and dynamic aspects of OT ultimately drew me in. I also got lucky: I didn't understand the full range of OT until I was already in the program and am still continuing to learn about it.

Being from Upstate New York, I was (with parental guidance) looking for the quickest and most cost effective way to get an OT degree. A five-year MS/BS program was a clear winner especially at a state school. Also, with the large size of UB I knew I would have plenty of opportunities to grow with extracurriculars

What is most meaningful to you about your career?

In health care it is really easy to feel like a cog in a broken system. Even though we may do the best for our patients/clients/participants, the system doesn't always have their best interest in mind. I have patients that I went above and beyond with, pushing and dragging them through this system, especially during COVID-19 when patients lost the direct advocacy of family/friends bedside. It's these experiences that make me the most proud to be an OT, getting updates from patients regarding their journey and continued progress that I know I had a direct impact on.

What advice would you give current occupational therapy students?

The opportunities and applicability of an OT degree and experience is limited by your own thought. If you want to be an OTR/L and work in a specific setting until you retire you can do that, and it's OK. If you don't want to work in a traditional OT setting, that is OK, too; there are other opportunities. Also, if you're interested in international OT opportunities, they are out there. It just takes some good timing and persistence.

What else should we know?

I originally applied to Fulbright for a 2020-2021 term and was chosen as an alternate (would go if anyone canceled). I reapplied for 2021-2022 and was selected as a recipient. It isn't fun to not be selected for something, but if you don't apply (and reapply), you're definitely not going to get it. If you think something is too prestigious and that you're not worthy so you don't apply, you will never know and will continue to perpetuate that thought.

Although I graduated in 2016, four years later when I was putting together the application for Fulbright, UB and the OT program still wanted me to be successful in my endeavors. Very thoughtful and direct revisions and processing of application materials were provided. Dr. [Jan] Tona, who I am confident has more productive things to do than help me with my application, was meticulous in the discussion around essays.