How child life studies helped CEHHS’ Paige Tapp find her stride

December 7, 2018

As she closes in on graduation, Tapp talks about why she’s drawn to one of the most intense career choices in the health and human services field.

When it came time for life after high school, senior Paige Tapp said the goal was always to make it happen in Hawaii. It was something of a second home for her already: Her dad’s side of the family has deep roots there, and she’d spent carefree summers on the Big Island with her relatives as far back as she can remember.

So she didn’t think much about having just one college on her application list. It turned out the University of Hawaii wasn't such a bad choice, either, for studying marine biology, the subject Tapp was pretty solidly focused on as she headed into her first semester.

But the reality of Hawaii didn’t measure up to the dream. As a freshman, she found herself missing her family back in Michigan — especially her two nieces, who are more like younger sisters. And the major in marine biology soon gave way to an interest in psychology, then nursing, and finally a feeling of being a little lost about what she wanted to do. “What I knew,” Tapp said, “is that I wanted to be home.”

It was challenging to suddenly feel like she was backtracking on a long-held dream, but three years later, Tapp now sees it clearly as the restart she needed.

“That whole year after I got back was the biggest period of working on myself that I’ve ever had to go through,” she said. “Yes, it was super hard. You have people asking you all the time about why you’re back or why it didn’t work out. You have to sort through a lot about who you are and what you really want to do. But now things are really good. It feels like the ball is rolling.”

Tapp said her time at UM-Dearborn has been a big part of finding a path that feels right. When she first returned to Michigan, she took some online classes at Schoolcraft College, while simultaneously looking for a more permanent place to continue her studies. At that point, given her interest in helping kids, she was zeroing in on education. But during a visit to UM-Dearborn, an adviser suggested taking a look at child life studies — a professional program focused on supporting children and their families during traumatic life experiences, like serious illnesses, a death in the family or incidents of abuse.

It’s an emotionally demanding field that’s not for everyone. But listen to Tapp reflect on the numerous volunteer experiences she’s pursued over the past few years and you’ll get a sense of what she’s made of.

There are the numerous kids she’s comforted in the burn unit at Detroit Children’s Hospital. Or the children at Ele's Place in Ann Arbor who are grieving the loss of a close family member. Or that day at the hospital she had to get creative, calling on Legos and Play-Doh to communicate with a family who didn’t speak English.

“As a volunteer, I probably could have just moved on and found the next family that I could have easily communicated with. But I’ve seen just how vulnerable you are when you can’t speak English — especially in a hospital. They needed someone, and I was there. And I couldn’t leave until I figured out how I could help.”

It’s almost as if the tougher the assignment, the more Tapp feels drawn to help — though she’s aware of the toll the intensity of the work can take on her. The risk of burnout is high in the field, and a vital part of her education has been learning how to use self care to manage the demands of the job. That means regularly debriefing with mentors and colleagues, and setting aside time to do things that just make her feel good — like gardening with her grandma.

Tapp said the support of her mom, dad and stepdad have been critical to her journey, and when she graduates later this month, she’s set to tackle an important next step: a child life internship at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak that will put her on track to take a licensing exam next year. Then, she said, the job search will commence. But before that, she plans to take a breather and recharge with a little travel. She’s not heading back to Hawaii, though, for some lazy days on the beach. In fact, she’s kind of thinking the opposite of Hawaii this time.

“Iceland,” she said without hesitation when asked about the places topping her dream travel list. “I’ve honestly been putting off looking into it because I don’t want to get all excited and go tomorrow and not even graduate! But it’s so green and the landscape is so beautiful. Maybe just a month or two. After that, I think I’ll be ready to dive in.”

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