Aspirations to sing, gateway to Allied Health

Had it been another life and another time it may not be Cynthia Hughes Harris dean of Allied Health Sciences at FAMU and vice-president of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Instead it might be Cynthia Hughes Harris, vocalist and stage star.

“There was a serious period of time when I was going to be a singer-dancer on stage, Broadway. I could dance well, choreograph and was really good in drama,” Harris said.

But her dreams of a stage career ended when reality hit at age 17 and she realized she couldn’t sing.

Still, occupational therapy wasn’t her immediate alternative.

Her first major as an undergrad at the University of Illinois was veterinary medicine. At the time it incorporated two things Harris wanted: involvement in medicine and the chance to be called ‘doctor’.

Harris said she saw herself going back to the South Side of Chicago as a black female vet.

After a year in the program she learned that the professional level students were dealing with goats and cows, not the cute little puppies and kittens she planned to take care of. It was then she knew veterinary medicine wasn’t for her.

Harris said she knew instead of questioning what she would do with her degree, she wanted to graduate with something to do.

She also knew she wanted to help others, and looked into careers in the medical field. Following her mother’s footsteps as a nurse was an idea, but Harris said something was missing. Physical therapy wasn’t it and neither was going to medical school.

Harris said she literally looked through career catalogues until she found something she’d never heard of called occupational therapy.

The more she read, the more excited she became. Occupational therapy combined helping people in a health care setting while incorporating an emotional and creative component.

“There are few times in life that you have the experience of ‘that’s it’, and that’s the experience I had with occupational therapy,” Harris said.

Prior to taking the position of dean, she was busy at Columbia University’s occupational therapy department.

And before that she implemented both the professional and post-professional educational programs at Rush University, the academic component of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago.

Harris is the originator of the motto “Allied Health Is On The Move.”

Evelyn Dowery, physical therapy interim director said, it’s a fun phrase that indicates that they’re about positive change.

“We as a unit have decided we’re on the move. We want to be more visible. We want to highlight the things we’re doing more on campus and not remain sort of an unknown,” she said.

“People know about nursing. They know about pharmacy and SBI, but when it comes to Allied Health Sciences it’s like ‘what’s that”, said Dowery

Students and colleagues say she has made a definite impact since her arrival at FAMU.

“Before, it was like sit back and do your major. Now it’s more socially interactive,” Robert Crum, 22, a senior health science student from Fort Lauderdale, said.

One example of this is the “Allied Health on the Move” activities week held last spring.

Events included a student and faculty campus power walk. Participants commanded attention as they carried banners and chanted “allied health” to accompaniment provided by members of the Marching 100 Band.

Although Harris said as a little girl she didn’t see herself as a teacher, others say she’s doing a great job.

“She really made herself available to listen and to see what people’s ideas and issues were and to help resolve and basically move forward,” said Dowery.

Crum said, “She’s always available for students. If you have a problem she’ll always take time out to talk to you.”

To Harris, dealing with students is the best part of her job.

“Being able to give to students, seeing the lights coming on and transforming those that didn’t know to ones that know, those that don’t think they can to ones who actually do, is a very, very powerful gratification,” she said.