A man and a woman sitting at a table.

Internship launches student’s career in behavioral health

Erica Meszaros recently completed an OTA and a HDFS degree at Penn State Shenango. Her passion for helping others, combined with her successful internship at Sharon Regional, landed her a position at the hospital upon graduation.
By: Liz Izenas

In today’s competitive job market, many career service professionals highly recommend that soon-to-be college graduates complete one or more internships during their final year or two of college.

For Penn State Shenango alumna Erica Meszaros, an internship at Sharon Regional Medical Center, combined with dual degrees in human development and family studies and occupational therapy assistant, opened the door to a rewarding position with Sharon Regional’s Behavioral Health Inpatient Unit upon graduation.

“Erica’s success came about because she followed her passion, combined her interests by attaining compatible degrees, and completed a successful internship at Sharon Regional,” said Penn State Shenango Career Services Coordinator Heidi Friedrich. “Her talents, steady work ethic, and competence caught the attention of her internship field supervisor, who hired Erica to fill a niche in the hospital’s Behavioral Health Inpatient Unit.”

Meszaros, like many other young adults, started her college career right out of high school. For one reason or another, however, college wasn’t the right fit at the time for the former Sharpsville High School graduate. Meszaros, who grew up with a good work ethic, did not stop learning. During those first several years after high school, she completed two separate technical programs – one to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), and another in medical transcription.

Since neither career was something that Meszaros saw herself doing forever, she began to research various options and decided to attend Penn State Shenango and further her education as an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) or a physical therapist assistant (PTA).

“Both my CNA and medical transcription positions provided me with work, and I was able to make a decent living,” said Meszaros. “However, neither job was one I felt I wanted to do long-term, and I knew I needed to go back to college and get a degree. So I did some research and fell in love with the idea of becoming an OTA or PTA. They say third time is a charm, so I guess starting my education at Penn State Shenango was my good luck charm!”

Once she made the decision to pursue a career in occupational therapy, Meszaros worked with her Shenango campus program adviser to see if it was feasible for her to concurrently pursue a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies (HDFS).

“Working with Erica while she pursued both degrees was more like trying to keep up with Erica,” said Roxanne Atterholt, assistant teaching professor for human development and family studies. “Having high but realistic goals, she took the right levels of risk and was committed to going the extra mile within her courses, and for her family. During an advising session one semester, I mentioned the rigor and probable intensity of her proposed schedule. Without pause, she responded, ‘You know I’m good for the work, I can do this.’ What an outstanding response. Without a doubt, her story demonstrates how planning, hard work, and determination create success.”

So over the next four and a half years, Meszaros, who typically carried between 18 and 27 credits per semester, completed an associate degree in OTA, a bachelor’s degree in HDFS, gave birth to two sons, and began raising a family.

When she was asked how she managed to do it all, Meszaros mused and commented, “I’m not sure I managed it all as much as I just kept one foot in front of the other and tried not to trip. I realized that it would only be an extra semester if I also pursued an HDFS degree and knew I wanted to someday get my master’s or doctorate degree in OT, so I made it work. Sometimes my priorities clashed with my classes, but my husband was my rock and helped me a lot with the kids. My Shenango professors were also very supportive and understanding, especially during and after I gave birth to each of my two sons.”

Meszaros knew the direction she wanted to take with her internship before her senior HDFS internship class even began, thanks to some in-depth insight from her in-laws, who are both medical professionals.

“I pretty much mapped out my whole internship a few weeks before my internship class even started,” said Meszaros. “I was speaking to my father-in-law, who is a physiatrist, and my mother-in-law, who is a retired nurse from Sharon Regional’s Behavioral Health Unit, about a mental health class I took for my OTA program. I was interested in overlapping my OTA degree into my HDFS internship. Once my in-laws heard me talking about the group activities we had done in my OTA class and heard in my voice how much I enjoyed the whole process of facilitating a group, they said I could be a real asset in the Behavioral Health Unit at Sharon Regional; and the rest is history.”

In addition to being Meszaros’ adviser, Atterholt was also her internship class instructor and was aware of Meszaros’ passion to utilize her OTA skills while helping children and adults who have behavior problems. Consequently, Atterholt, who had a professional connection with a staff member in the Behavioral Health Unit at Sharon Regional, invited Behavioral Health Liaison Scott Pino to speak to her students. Once Pino met with Meszaros and they discussed a possible collaboration, Pino enthusiastically offered Meszaros an internship, which began in spring 2019.

One of Meszaros’ primary internship responsibilities was to facilitate groups of children in the hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit. These groups included children who needed support with anger management, emotional regulation, emotional identification, sensory integration, stress management and coping with anxiety. For fourteen weeks, Meszaros watched and analyzed the children’s behaviors to help and participate in the unit’s coding process. She also designed and implemented morning movement groups and aided in building a sensory cart for children who had sensory issues.

“The human services field, in general, and the behavioral health field, specifically, are very much in need of an expanded workforce,” said Pino. “This is especially true in the smaller, more rural areas, like Mercer County. It was refreshing to see Erica’s excitement and interest in bringing her diverse skill set as an OTA, enhanced by her HDFS degree, to our Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit. Her eagerness to learn from practical experience was energizing. She was well-prepared, and extremely self-motivated. We are very happy to have Erica as a full-time employee and add her skills and energy to our team,” said Pino.

Following Meszaros’ successful internship at Sharon Regional, she was hired by the hospital as a COTA/Mental Health Worker for its Behavioral Health Units (both child and adult units).

“I am so glad I had the opportunity to complete such a hands-on internship at Sharon Regional,” said Meszaros. “It was so fulfilling, and I recommend any student that has the chance to complete an internship to take it. For me, it gave me the chance to combine my skills and knowledge to figure out what I was truly passionate about.”