Their volunteer time at Vermillion’s Community Connection Center—a central location for the Vermillion Food Pantry, Welcome Table, Weekend Backpack program and other community services— has helped them learn about the services that help individuals and families in need. OT students have been actively involved at the Center, where they fill various roles by assisting with shopping, checking out shoppers, assisting individuals to their cars, and restocking items.

Allison Naber, Ph.D., associate professor of occupational therapy, said that although all USD OT students are required to participate in service-learning activities throughout the semester, many students volunteer for additional opportunities.

“We value service-learning opportunities as a way for students to learn in real-world settings while serving the USD and Vermillion communities,” Naber stated. “Each semester the service-learning activities align with the foundational or practice-based courses the students are taking. The service-learning events provide a reciprocal learning relationship between students and the people or groups they work with. Students are able to consider the physical, psychological, and social needs of the individuals they serve and develop a deeper understanding of the ways to adapt the environments to promote occupational performance and improve health.”

The 50 students serving were asked to reflect on their experiences and identify factors such as social determinants of health, lifestyle factors, factors for all health care professionals to consider, and the positive impact of interprofessional collaboration in a non-traditional, community-based setting.

Class of 2026 OT student Michelle Arens said that through her service at the Community Connection Center, she’s learned how to better interact with people who come from backgrounds different from hers. “Volunteering has given me different viewpoints on life and has made me a more compassionate, considerate and more well-rounded individual,” she shared. “Everyone has a story that helps make them who they are, and I love hearing about them and helping them in whatever ways I can. I feel as though I am making a difference in people’s lives.”

Another faction of USD OT students has provided workstation assessments at USD – Sioux Falls and the USD Beacom School of Business. Two dozen OT students assessed nearly 50 faculty and staff to examine posture, make ergonomic adjustments and improve comfort; and then provided recommendations on creating healthy habits, such as alternating sitting and standing activities, walking around the office throughout the day, and doing exercises to promote flexibility and decrease tension.

“These experiences provided us with further opportunities to communicate in a professional setting,” said Madison Carlson, Class of 2025. “Because this setting isn't always widely recognized for occupational therapy, we were challenged to advocate for our skills and knowledge in ergonomics. I really enjoyed collaborating with faculty to upgrade their positioning and office spaces.”

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