Graduate determined to succeed

Faculty of Education

Oct 21, 2017

By Moira Baird

Alison Petten has spent a lifetime overcoming physical challenges and obstacles – and attending Memorial University was no exception.

The St. John’s native received a Master of Education in Counselling Psychology this fall and also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) with a major in psychology.

“Going to MUN was tough and it was a vast challenge for me physically, but I made it work,” said Ms. Petten.

Rare condition

Ms. Petten was born with a rare condition known as arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, which causes joints to become permanently fixed in a straight or bent position. It affects the joints in her hands, elbows and knees, and can make seemingly simple tasks difficult.

Little was known about arthrogryposis 27 years ago, and Ms. Petten said she wasn’t expected to survive. Despite the bleak prognosis, she went home from the hospital with her parents a month after her birth.

Medical professionals at the Janeway Children’s Hospital later suggested a trip to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Montreal, where she was diagnosed with arthrogryposis.

“I can do stairs, but they’re challenging,” said Ms. Petten. “I can open a door, if it has a push-down handle. If not, I need to rely on push-button door openers and I found at Memorial those buttons didn’t always work.

“Something as simple as where the buttons are positioned on an elevator is difficult for me. I can’t reach up high because of the way my elbows are affected by arthrogryposis.”

Elevators requiring keys to operate posed another challenge, since her hands lack the fine motor skills to hold a key.

Counselling opportunity

Along with her studies, Ms. Petten served as social chair for the Psych Society and volunteered with the Smoker’s Help Line as an addictions counsellor, Kid Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“My goal was to eventually become a counsellor.”

Ms. Petten realized that goal in August when she started working as a psychologist in private practice in Gander.

“It was an opportunity that I didn’t want to turn down and I think it’s been good for my independence to be taken out of my comfort zone.”

Dr. Rhonda Joy, associate dean of graduate programs and research in the Faculty of Education, has first-hand experience of Ms. Petten’s determination to succeed. She taught Ms. Petten in an undergraduate course and was also her thesis supervisor.

“Throughout my experiences with Alison, her most outstanding attribute is her determination – when she sets her mind on a goal, she is determined to achieve it,” said Dr. Joy.

“It hasn’t been an easy road. Alison overcame many barriers in achieving her undergraduate and graduate degrees, and she is to be admired and respected for her accomplishments.”

Hands-free driving

For the past three years, a big part of Ms. Petten’s independence has been a car adapted to her needs. 

“The words can’t or cannot have not really been in my vocabulary, and I knew that driving was very important to me with my lifestyle and the extracurricular activities that I engage in.”

When Ms. Petten couldn’t find what she needed in St. John’s, she went to Montreal where Constance-Lethbridge Rehabilitation Centre specializes in vehicle adaptions for the physically challenged.

“They assessed me, had some ideas and within an hour I was in a parking lot testing a vehicle.”

Unable to turn a conventional steering, Ms. Petten opted for a disc-shaped mechanism installed on the car floor that enables her to steer with her feet.

To indicate a turn, she uses her head to push buttons installed on the left and right sides of the head rest. Another button on the door arm rest activates the windshield wipers.

“It’s completely hands-free driving – it’s pretty amazing.”

Research and counselling

Ms. Petten’s thesis research focused on a children’s anxiety prevention and intervention program, Friend for Life, which is offered in schools.

“We collected data on the differences between levels of anxiety for children who had the intervention from Friends for Life and those who did not. My research looked at whether or not there were differences between girls and boys.”

While more research is needed, she said girls were more likely than boys to use coping strategies, such as cognitive avoidance.

“If girls know they have to do something or there’s something stressful that’s coming up, they tend to avoid it and do something else rather than face it.”

The research convinced her that she wanted to work directly with clients rather than study them.

“For me, I want to be with the client and that’s what I’m doing now. That’s the life job for me and I’m happy with it.”

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