Newswise — On the surface, it seemed that Judy Gnirrep had achieved everything that an MBA would desire: She was a highly compensated sales executive traveling the globe managing multimillion-dollar accounts.

But in reality, this success came with personal sacrifices and challenges for the single mother who in her 40s lost her mother and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“During the year I underwent cancer treatment, I realized just how much I disliked my job,” says Gnirrep who received her bachelor’s degree in communications from Rutgers in 1989. “I wanted to come home at night and know I made a difference in someone’s life.”

Today at the age of 48, the West Milford resident is back at school in the highly regarded Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program at Rutgers. The program trains students to help individuals challenged by disability, trauma or the aging process to develop, recover and improve the skills needed for daily living.

When Gnirrep discovered the program at Rutgers School of Health Related Professions, she felt a spark. “I like to be active, and OTA is not a desk job,” she says. She was intrigued by occupational therapy’s focus on an individual’s cognitive ability and rehabilitation process and the fact that it is a growing field expected to grow by 42 percent in the next five years

She was also inspired by her mother, a homemaker who became a licensed practical nurse midlife. “The idea of changing my entire life was scary,” she says, “but my mother pursued her dreams in her 40s, and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I?’”

In early 2014, Gnirrep left her job to finish her required coursework at Raritan Valley Community College and to observe occupational therapy practitioners. She was accepted into the OTA program at Rutgers that summer to complete the two-year associate of science degree.

When the time came for Gnirrep to begin clinical fieldwork this spring, the Rutgers program established a affiliation agreement with Rutgers University Correctional Health Care to allow OTA students to complete their fieldwork training and get exposure to a prison setting. The first opportunity was at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County.

“With her business background, Judy was a natural for this fieldwork opportunity, which required a student who had a high level of maturity and professionalism,” says Karen Kowalski, the program’s academic fieldwork coordinator.

Working in a correctional facility was somewhat of a culture shock, Gnirrep admits. “There are a number of screenings to get into the building. I can only bring in my keys and notepad, and everyone is referred to by their last name,” she says.

But she also saw humanity within those walls. “I discovered that in prison, there’s a lot of respect – for officers, inmates and colleagues,” she says.

During her assignment, Gnirrep worked with Susan Connor, the occupational therapist who ran social and community service groups in which inmates crocheted items, such as blankets, for the needy. She also observed the facility’s mental health initiatives, such as music therapy and substance abuse programs.

“The work is fascinating: Since I got to see these women in a variety of groups, I felt like I got to know them and loved seeing them improve their skills,” she says. “In this way, working in a prison is no different than working elsewhere.”

This summer, Gnirrep will start her next clinical fieldwork assignment in hippotherapy, which places individuals on horseback to achieve therapeutic goals.

“In this field, no day is the same, and I love that,” she says. “When my son is an adult I hope he will look back as I did with my mother and understand what a leap of faith I took – and how payment for a job comes in many forms.”

For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 848-932-0551 or [email protected]