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STC Alumnus Set to Earn a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy

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Once veteran and STC alumnus Jose Cruz found STC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, not only did he become a passionate professional, but he has also dedicated the last eight years to tutoring at STC, guiding those who came after him. STC Image
Once veteran and STC alumnus Jose Cruz found STC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, not only did he become a passionate professional, but he has also dedicated the last eight years to tutoring at STC, guiding those who came after him. STC Image
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By Selene Rodriguez

For veteran and South Texas College alumnus and tutor Jose Cruz, the journey to his true passion may not have always been a clear path, but once he found STC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, not only did he become a passionate health care professional, but he has also dedicated the last eight years tutoring at STC and guiding those that came after him.

Set to earn his doctorate in Occupational Therapy from Baylor University this December, he is ready to continue giving back to the community that watched him grow from migrant beginnings to excellence in patient care. 

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“Because I served in the military for five years, college wasn’t on my radar until I turned 27,” he recounted. “After my service in the Navy, I found myself lost, trying out different professions until I finally discovered where I truly belong.”

Brought to the United States from Mexico as a child, Cruz grew up in Weslaco, relying on jobs in fast food, retail and security to get by after graduating from high school. 

At 20 years old and with no clear goal in mind, he decided to enlist in the Navy.

“I loved my time in the Navy, I could have made a career out of it but, when they asked me to move to another position, I decided to come back home,” the 38-year-old shared.

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He then spent five years working at the Hidalgo County Juvenile Boot Camp helping guide at-risk youth toward a better path. However, work was demanding and it eventually took its toll.

“I was tired of where I was and I needed a change. And that’s when I started thinking about school,” he said. “I explored several schools and STC was the most welcoming. From the first moment I stepped into STC’s Veteran’s Office, I felt taken care of. They literally walked me through everything, the entire process.”

Interested in Radiology Technology, Cruz started the program in January 2016. 

“I love science and technology. My end goal was nuclear medicine, which I find fascinating, but once I started doing clinical rotations, I realized it was not for me,” he said. “But that’s what’s so great about STC; there are so many options. So, Physical Therapist Assistant was my next shot.”

While observing a physical therapist work with a patient, observations are a requirement to be accepted into the program, he became intrigued by a group of people playing dominoes nearby, laughing and having a good time.

“Turns out, they were receiving Occupational Therapy,” he said. “It struck me how this simple activity was helping stroke patients with muscle weakness improve their reach and their cognitive skills. Seeing the joy it brought them, I knew I had found my calling. Shortly after, I sat down with the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program at STC and applied.”

To support himself financially as a full-time student, Cruz applied for a part-time tutoring position at STC’s Center of Learning Excellence (CLE), a role he has cherished and maintained ever since. 

“I spent so much time at the CLE that one day they suggested, ‘Why don’t you just work here?'” Cruz recalled. “It’s brought me immense joy to assist countless students with their coursework, and once I became a licensed clinician, it became even more beneficial for everyone involved.”

Cruz graduated from the program in May 2018 and immediately entered the workforce, starting in pediatrics. Since then, he has gained valuable experience in various settings including nursing facilities, school districts, and in-patient hospitals, culminating in his current position at Edinburg Regional Medical Center.

“What I love about this field is that you’re not always limited to a medical setting. We can work with construction companies to help implement ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant homes or with businesses to implement proper ergonomics and prevent future employee injuries,” he explained. “We can also become private consultants, instructors in education or collaborate with transportation departments to assist disabled individuals in navigating transport. There are so many opportunities.”

While working part-time in his field and tutoring, Cruz also pursued a bachelor’s degree in Medical and Health Services Management at STC, graduating in 2021.

“STC has been amazing to me,” he said. “Every question I had was always answered. I’ve had dedicated instructors from my prerequisites to my bachelor’s program.”

He also shared his heartfelt appreciation for the unwavering support he received from his instructors during a particularly challenging time, when he lost his grandmother, the woman who raised him.

Excited to become a therapist and earn a doctorate, Cruz’s journey is far from over. 

His next aspiration is to become a certified hand therapist, a challenging and extensive process that would distinguish him as one of only 6,000 in the United States, an achievement that would undoubtedly bring valuable expertise to the Rio Grande Valley.

“If I had stayed in the military, I would be three years away from retirement. However, my life may have taken a very different path”, he said. “I’m genuinely happy with the way things have worked out. I’ve had the opportunity to meet amazing instructors, classmates, coworkers and students. It’s been a wild ride, and while I may be leaving STC soon, I’m excited to embark on another amazing journey. It’s been an incredible experience.”

For more information on STC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, visit southtexascollege.edu/academics/occupational-therapy/ or call 956-872-3216.

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