It was a bold move, and it’s paying off.
In 2015, Bay Path University was bursting at the seams of its Longmeadow campus, thanks in large part to the growing popularity of its master’s-degree program in occupational therapy (OT). The university had instituted the graduate program in 2006, after requirements for entry-level employment in the profession changed, but had offered a bachelor’s degree in OT for 20 years.
Meanwhile, a master’s program for physician assistants (PAs), begun in 2009, was also gaining momentum, adding to the increased need for space.
While that growing interest was good for the university, its leaders were hard-pressed to find room to expand the facilities to accommodate the number of students who wished to enroll in the two programs, while still meeting the needs of its student population of more than 3,000.
“We needed to find more space, and we didn’t have that available to us here on this campus,” Bay Path Provost Melissa Morriss-Olson told HCN.
The solution: to build a brand-new, off-site facility devoted to graduate studies in OT, PA, and, eventually, other health sciences. That facility, the Philip H. Ryan Health Science Center, was completed in January 2015, and began operations later that month.
The move alleviated the space crunch, and also came at a time when Bay Path was committing itself further to building its health-science programming — growth that fits well with the university’s overall mission, Morriss-Olson said.
“It’s not like Bay Path just woke up one day and said, ‘let’s do health science,’” she noted. “We had made a decision to put a stake in the ground in terms of health science as an educational signature area for us.”
Indeed, in its “Vision 2016” executive summary, officials at the university noted the increasing importance of offering graduate-level study in health-related fields.
“Ongoing program development at the graduate level is a cornerstone strategy and perhaps no more important than in health-science-related degrees,” the report asserts, noting that employment growth over the next decade is projected to be as high as 30% in some fields.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is our commitment to serving the needs of our region and providing knowledge and skills to our students to make sure they find meaningful, relevant employment,” Morriss-Olson said.
To meet that challenge, programming has been further expanded; beginning in the fall, the Ryan Center will house two brand-new graduate programs — a master’s degree in genetic counseling and the university’s first doctoral program, in occupational therapy.
The study of genetic counseling joins 32 such programs in the U.S., and will be the first in the nation to include both on-site and online components. Twelve students will be enrolled in the fall, although there is great potential for growth, she noted.
Meanwhile, the center will serve as a home base for the doctoral program in OT, which will launch in October utilizing an online-curriculum model.
“Cumulatively, those programs produce about 200 graduates a year; the job openings [locally] are four times that,” Morriss-Olson said. “Our students will have guaranteed employment as they walk out the door.”
State of the Art
The Ryan Health Science Center, at 1 Denslow Road in East Longmeadow, is a two-story, steel-frame structure that features more than 57,000 square feet of office space, classrooms, and labs, as well as a café and spacious common areas for group and individual study, all built to meet the burgeoning needs of the health-science programs. Designed by Bernard M. Schenkelberg Architects in Springfield, the contemporary structure cost nearly $10.3 million.
“When we designed the space, we did it with the faculty and the students; we created it based on how they most like to learn,” Morriss-Olson said. “We asked them, ‘if you could create a space for training the next generation, what does that space need to look like?’”
One of the signature features that resulted from that query is a model apartment, utilized by the OT program, which simulates the real-life settings in which students will one day work to help clients adapt their environments and tasks to fit their needs.
“OT had a seat at the table when figuring out what would help the program, what is good for the students,” said Beverly St. Pierre, director of OT programs at Bay Path and a 2007 graduate of the program. “Occupational therapy is a ‘doing’ profession. Our students need hands-on practice.”
To that end, the model apartment features a furnished bedroom; a kitchen, with a sink, cupboards, counter space, and a stove; a dining area; and a bathroom, complete with bathtub and shower, a sink, and a toilet, where students can practice applying strategies and tools for adaptive living.
“If we’re learning about helping someone in the kitchen, for example, instead of saying, ‘let’s pretend a stove is here,’ students can actually be in the kitchen area, where they can apply their practice,” St. Pierre said.
In addition, four dedicated lab spaces for use by the OT program’s roughly 120 students are a godsend, she went on. Previously, on the Longmeadow campus, OT faculty could be seen lugging lab equipment from place to place, including pediatric swings, wheelchairs, splinting materials, crayons, markers — anything that might be utilized to train occupational therapists.
“We had to pack all our stuff, bring it over, have our lab, and put it all away, because it was shared space — maybe there was a history class coming in, or an English class,” she said. “We carried a lot of items back and forth. Now, it’s all in one place.”
Morriss-Olson says Bay Path is capitalizing on the growing prominence of its health-science programs to promote a collaborative approach to education, combining the university’s already-strong graduate curricula in special education, applied behavioral analysis, and clinical mental-health counseling, along with OT and PA studies, into a single School of Education, Human & Health Sciences, all now housed in the Ryan Center under a single dean, Elizabeth Fleming, the university’s associate provost.
“We’re not just putting healthcare over there by itself, but structuring it so the faculty and students will have many opportunities to learn within a more holistic, integrated context,” Morriss-Olson said.
As one of the first residents of the Ryan Center, St. Pierre said, the OT team welcomes the other programs.
“We enjoy the interdisciplinary cooperation. As professionals, we talk with each other about how we can support each other, collaborate for the students,” she said. “It’s helpful for OT students to work with someone in mental health, or education, or health administration. And now that the programs are all here, we are looking at how to improve that experience even more.”
It was the facility, along with the holistic approach to healthcare, including a mandatory class in medical ethics, that attracted first-year PA student Micala Smith, a 2016 graduate of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, who majored in religious studies with a concentration in medical ethics. She said she looked at PA programs all over the country before settling on Bay Path.
“The building left an impression on me,” said Smith, who joined other first-year PA students on campus in June for the start of classes. “I liked the flow of the building. It has a really lovely energy, and it was designed with students in mind.”
That design includes classrooms that are fully wired and large, wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, which students can connect to wirelessly with their laptops, tablets, and cellphones, making it easy to share online presentations, research, or study guides.
Plus, she noted, “we have these awesome rooms for group study, and there are great spaces to socialize. And everything is central — it’s all in one building. That’s important because we’re already pressed for time.”
Indeed, Smith and her fellow first-year PA students have classes five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the first year, they work in a state-of-the-art facility, equipped with a cutting-edge cadaver lab of plasticized human body parts for the study of anatomy, as well as multiple simulated exam rooms, set up to resemble those in medical offices, where they learn the art of the comprehensive physical exam. Clinical rotations in a variety of specialties and settings will follow in their second year.
It’s a busy schedule, but when Smith saw the Ryan Center during a campus visit, she easily imagined spending nearly every waking hour there for the next two years. “I spend a lot of time here,” she said. “At five o’clock, I’m definitely not running out the door.”
Connecting the Dots
Morriss-Olson said the new campus has elevated the university’s visibility in the community. Though people may have been initially surprised to find Bay Path in East Longmeadow, many have gotten to know the Ryan Center through educational events there that are open to the public.
“It brings people here who might not otherwise have interaction with the campus,” she said. “The more we open up our boundaries, the more we can further leverage our mission and our resources. It’s been a really, really good thing for Bay Path.”