Jennifer Yazwinski ’21 was two months away from starting her Master of Occupational Therapy program at USM when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was 2017, she was 41 and the married mother of two. She’d spent years finishing her prerequisites, and now that she was finally able to start the program, she received the shocking news that she had cancer.
Should she stay at USM, the school she’d worked so hard to attend? Should she leave to focus on her health? She had days to decide.
“Up until the week before classes started, I did not know what kind of treatment I would need and almost withdrew,” she said. “I had surgery my second week in the program and received radiation therapy every morning before classes throughout my first semester.”
She didn’t do it alone.
“My husband took on new responsibilities at home, and he and my children made lots of sacrifices so that I could pursue my degree,” she said. “My parents and in-laws helped out financially and with childcare and our neighbors and friends made meals and shuttled the kids to their after-school activities. It really did take a village!”
This spring, that struggle will pay off when Yazwinski graduates with her Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy.
“I think the idea that so many people were helping and sacrificing for me to get my MOT drove my performance in the classroom — I didn't want to let anyone down,” she said.
Yazwinski received her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia in 1998. Over the years, she worked as an analyst for a company that specialized in healthcare data analytics, as a preschool music teacher, and in logistics and sales/marketing for a custom wedding ring manufacturer.
But personal experiences drew her to occupational therapy.
“My son experienced developmental delays as a toddler and received speech, occupational, and physical therapy from the age of 2,” she said. “The therapists that we worked with in early intervention made an incredible difference for him and our entire family. It was difficult to find an occupational therapist to treat him and we were on a long waiting list for services.
“At the same time, my father was involved in a very serious car accident and spent several months in a rehabilitation facility where he worked with an occupational therapist to help him return home and take care of himself independently. When my children were a little older and I started thinking about returning to the workforce full-time, I felt like occupational therapy would satisfy my intellectual curiosity about the body and the brain and allow me to help individuals and families impacted by illness and injury.”
Through online, community college, and USM classes, Yazwinski worked on required prerequisites for several years. She finished just as she was laid off from her job with the wedding ring manufacturer. With no job and with both kids in school, she decided it was time to go for her degree. She applied only to USM, liking the fact that the Lewiston-Auburn campus was to her home in Topsham, tuition was lower compared to other programs, and she had the ability to pursue her studies part-time if needed.
She was all set to go. Then breast cancer.
“It was a complete shock — I was 41 and had no family history of breast cancer or any known risk factors,” she said.
She could have withdrawn from school. Instead, thinking of everyone who sacrificed to support her, she plowed forward.
“I also knew that I had the opportunity to get as much as I could out of being a member of the USM community, so I pursued opportunities like being on the board of the USM/LAC Community Clinic, working as a graduate assistant, and attending Hill Day in Washington D.C. to lobby for legislation that benefits the profession of occupational therapy,” she said.
She even participated in the Summer Institute for Future Scientists in Occupational Therapy, a prestigious summer research institute sponsored by the American Occupational Therapy Association.
“It was quite cool to sit and talk one-on-one with the authors of the textbooks I was reading for class!” she said. “Ultimately I decided that now is just not the right time to uproot my family to pursue a research career at one of the big universities, but I made the connections that will help me do that if I decide to in the future,” she said.
Today, Yazwinski is cancer-free and this spring will graduate with the master’s degree she worked so hard to earn.
She entered the Occupational Therapy program convinced that she wanted to work in pediatrics, likely with kids on the autism spectrum. But a recent 12-week fieldwork placement at the Midcoast Senior Health Center, a skilled nursing facility in Brunswick, has her reconsidering that career path.
“I've really enjoyed working in geriatrics the past few months,” she said. “OT is great because I have the flexibility of using the same set of underlying skills to work with different populations and in different settings.”
Though immediately after graduation, Yazwinski has more concrete plans.
“Studying for the board exam!” she said.