A photo of John Horz

Returning Adult Student Turns to Community College and Achieves New Career

After 12 years in law enforcement and service in the Army National Guard, John Sterkowitz came to South Suburban College (SSC) with the goal of a “late career change.” This 36-year-old from Oak Forest completed his education in the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) Program in December 2021, passed the national board exam on his first attempt, and gained employment as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant shortly thereafter.

 “I’m into fitness and understanding the biomechanics of the body,” Sterkowitz stated about the interest that caused him to explore a career in healthcare. While originally progressing through a clinical experience to become a Certified Nurse Assistant through SSC’s Basic Nurse Assistant Training Program, he observed the work of an Occupational Therapy Assistant first-hand and remarked, “That is definitely something I could see myself doing in the future.” It was then that he decided to explore this newfound interest by contacting La’Taria Overstreet, SSC’s OTA Program Coordinator.

The diversity of his OTA classmates gave Sterkowitz comfort after assuming he would be the oldest student in the program. “There were actually 3 others who were older than me,” he said. “Some of them had families with children. It really inspired me to know if they can do it, I can do it.”

Sterkowitz also found inspiration from Ray Cendejas, a former guest lecturer in the OTA Program, who succeeded in this female-dominated field. His connection with Cendejas eventually led to his first clinical internship in the OTA Program, working in a mental health setting to develop plans for patient improvement during the recovery process. His second internship was more hands-on, helping patients physically recover from various injuries. “All of my clinical experiences were important,” Sterkowitz remarked. “You learn how to think on your toes and deal with several different personalities. You have to be flexible and adapt to different circumstances. That kind of experience and knowledge is difficult to gain during standard classroom activities.” 

While working toward an Associate of Applied Science degree, Sterkowitz found comfort in the financial benefits at the college. “I can’t express enough gratitude to SSC, both educationally and financially,” he continued. “I was awarded the Karen Tews Returning Adult Scholarship and an SSCF Returning Adult Scholarship. I was so thankful not to have a heavy financial burden due to the consistent support of the South Suburban College Foundation.”

Sterkowitz is now licensed as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant in three states: Illinois, Indiana and South Carolina. He is employed at Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Hospital, an affiliate of Encompass Health, in Little River, SC. He aids in the rehabilitation process for patients recovering from ailments, including stroke, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. His goal is to help patients get back to their daily routines.

With his previous bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and sociology, Sterkowitz now plans to attend graduate school to elevate his career and become a Registered Occupational Therapist by utilizing one of several bridge programs. “Hopefully this will inspire someone who is struggling and wants to make a career change, but is hesitant,” Sterkowitz said of his story. “I had a lot of self-doubt. You just have to push through, set goals and stay positive.”

The SSC Occupational Therapy Assistant Program prepares individuals to work in a health profession that helps people of all ages prevent, lessen and overcome disabilities. This program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education of the American Occupational Therapy Association. More information about SSC’s OTA program is conveniently located online.