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Arnold School of Public Health

Exercise science graduate pursues career combining occupational therapy with adaptive sports and recreation

May 7, 2020 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu

Mackenzie Walker’s parents were sold on UofSC because it is home to the number one public honors college in the nation. It also offered their daughter’s ideal major, exercise science, in the well-regarded Arnold School of Public Health. Those attributes mattered to Walker too, but they weren’t the deciding factors for the Jacksonville, Florida native.

“If I’m being honest, the real reason I decided to attend UofSC truly was that warm, fuzzy, feeling that I got from being on campus and interacting with the students and faculty,” she says. “Standing on the historic horseshoe, I knew that I was home, that this university held opportunities for me that I wouldn’t get anywhere else, and that I would find my life-long friends on this campus. I have never been more right about anything in my life.”

Walker became interested in adaptive sports and recreation when she began volunteering with the Brooks Rehabilitation Adaptive Sports and Recreation program the summer after graduating from high school. Run by occupational therapist Alice Krauss, this community health initiative offers weekly, cost-free adaptive sports programs to address the physical inactivity and social isolation experienced by individuals with disabilities.

Standing on the historic horseshoe, I knew that I was home, that this university held opportunities for me that I wouldn’t get anywhere else, and that I would find my life-long friends on this campus.

-Mackenzie Walker, B.S. in Exercise Science 2020

“I quickly realized that I had found my calling and sought to devote the rest of my life to bringing adaptive sports and recreation to as many people as I could to change the lives of those living with disabilities by assisting them in one small triumph at a time,” Walker says.

At UofSC, the President’s List Honoree conducted research in exercise science professor Sara Wilcox’s UofSC Prevention Research Center, organizing and coding data for the Center’s Faith, Activity, and Nutrition project and engaging in an independent study about the differences in health behaviors and health-related attitudes among church attendees based on disability status. Walker completed a second independent study under the guidance of her academic advisor, associate dean for undergraduate student affairs Sara Corwin, on facilitating adaptive sports for individuals with disabilities and completed her honors thesis with instructor Charlotte Galloway on the development of adaptive sports programming at universities.

To explore these areas even further, Walker founded the Students Participating in Unified Recreation and Sports Club to increase the awareness of and involvement in adaptive sports and recreation. When looking for a faculty advisor for the newly established club, she stumbled across the College of Education’s associate professor of physical education Ali Brian. Brian agreed to serve as an advisor, oversaw Walker’s research on physical activity perceptions of parents participating in SKIPping with PALS (a project on which Walker also served as a research assistant) and offered her a graduate assistantship in her College’s Master of Science in Adapted Physical Education program.

“The coursework is specific to providing sport and recreation opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” says Walker, whose original plan was to apply to occupational therapy doctorate programs immediately following her undergraduate degree. “This was an offer I couldn’t pass up, so I delayed my application to occupational therapy doctorate programs a year, so I could complete this master’s program.” 

In addition to building her experience and expertise in adaptive sports and recreation, Walker used her time at Carolina to bolster another passion: mentorship. Sparked by the dedication of a high school teacher who guided Walker through her AP research paper, cheered her on at soccer games and served as a role model, Walker is committed to paying it forward.

“I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the same person today if I hadn’t met Ms. Mustard,” she says. “I felt that no matter how many thank-you notes I wrote, I could never repay her until I could be that person for someone else.”

As a result, Walker mentored first-year UofSC students as an extended orientation mentor for Pillars for Carolina, a peer leader for University 101 and a lead mentor for the Honors Peer Mentorship program. These experiences taught Walker the importance of recognizing the individuality of each student, which allowed her to form unique relationships and paved the way to enhancing both her approachability and their transition to college.

“This acknowledgement of individuality and focus on relationship development is at the core of occupational therapy as well, which employs the therapeutic relationship to help identify the occupations patients find meaningful, to work with them to create goals based on those occupations, and to motivate them to achieve these goals,” Walker says.

She also continued to identify new mentors for herself. In addition to Mustard, Krauss, Wilcox, Corwin, Galloway and Brian, Walker has built connections with many others.

“I feel so fortunate to have had the public health mentors I did throughout my time at the University of South Carolina,” she says. “They pushed me, encouraged me and guided me in my studies, in my journey to bring adaptive sports programming to the university, and in my life. I owe a lot of my success in my undergraduate career to my mentors.”

Clinical associate professor Kara Montgomery served as Walker’s first Arnold School mentor – teaching her University 101 course when Walker was a freshman and then allowing her to assist with the course during her senior year. 

I feel so fortunate to have had the public health mentors I did throughout my time at the University of South Carolina.

-Mackenzie Walker, B.S. in Exercise Science 2020

“My freshman year, I remembered thinking how amazing it was to have a professor who cared so much about me, who checked up on me when a hurricane hit my home town, who helped me through stressful situations, and who greeted me enthusiastically whenever she saw me walking around the Public Health Research Center,” Walker says. “My senior year, I was able to use her example and guidance to demonstrate a genuine concern for our University 101 students and learned what it truly meant to support first-year students in their transition to college life.”

Despite graduating in just three years, Walker has managed to achieve Graduation with Leadership Distinction in Research and receive both a UofSC Outstanding Senior Award and President’s Award. Some of her other honors include the Brooks Rehabilitation Scholarship for Exercise Science Majors, Academic Scholar-Elite Award, Outstanding Achievement and Student Triumph Award, First Place in USC Connect/Graduation with Leadership Distinction Health Themes at Discover USC 2019, a South Carolina Honors College Exploration Grant and a Magellan Scholar Award.

“Public health is in the business of promoting health, preventing disease and prolonging life. If you’re thinking that’s pretty broad, it is. This is great news because that gives you plenty of room to integrate your interests, skills, and the public health literature to identify a passion of yours, a public health problem that you can address to make the world a better place,” Walker says. “For those interested in studying public health, my advice is to get involved on campus and find mentors who can encourage and guide you in the process of finding your passion.”


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