Interview and writing by Lyndsay Barrett
When Rachel McLelland enrolled in the Registered Massage Therapist (RMT) program at a college in British Columbia, she knew she was taking a huge step in her life. It was a dream she’d privately cherished for years, but she tucked it back on the shelf over and over again.
I’d wanted to be an RMT forever,” she recalls. “I remember after church service was over I’d go up to people in their chairs and just rub their shoulders. Or my mom gets bad migraines, and I’d work on her shoulders just to get the tension out. She used to tease me that my fingers were heat seeking missiles, and I even say that now to my patients! But I’d heard the program was super science-heavy and that it was a really intense program. I thought I wasn’t smart enough.
The RMT dream motivated her to give Biology 11 a try in high school, though science had never come easy. The course was hard but she made it through. She tried Biology 12 the next year, which had a greater focus on the human body.
“I was excited for Bio 12 because I thought, ‘Finally, body systems!’” Her enthusiasm didn’t last long. The coursework was complicated and studying felt like treading water. After the first quiz her teacher took her aside and said, “Save yourself and drop this course.”
So I did. And I looked for a new direction. I’d be looking up different RMT programs or looking at my dream school and think, ‘Well that’s a lovely thought but I’m not smart enough, so I’m doing something else and moving forward.’
That something else was a 12-year career at a successful local company, working her way up to a coveted executive assistant position. She worked closely with the CEO, who was incredibly supportive, and the company was invested in employee professional development. Still, nothing quieted that little voice that kept asking “What if?”
I loved my job but I didn’t have interest in other positions or pursuing training that would put me in another path.
So RMT programs dotted her search history once again. Though this time there was a new draw. A close friend, Kaci, had enrolled in a nearby RMT program. Suddenly her dream didn’t feel so far-fetched. Additionally, the entrance requirements had changed and Biology 12 was off the list.
When Kaci was halfway through the program and doing well Rachel started to ask her about it, hoping to find out if she could do it herself. Kaci described the full-time two-year course as both the hardest and best thing she’d ever done. Rachel was inspired. She started talking about her dream with her husband, her mother, and a tight network of supporters who knew her well and whose feedback she trusted.
She researched every program within driving distance and determined her priorities. She settled on a program with small class sizes, in a familiar and relatively close neighbourhood. Classes were all day, every week day, plus she’d do between four and five hours of extra work in the evenings, on top of a 1 hour and 15-minute commute. A second friend, Mandy, caught her enthusiasm and enrolled with her, providing extra personal support along the way. Rachel was ready to meet every challenge, and her success surprised even her.
"I ended up graduating with honours so, ya, I was smart enough!"
Rachel's smile radiates each time she talks about what she’s accomplished.
Enrolling was a huge first step, but keeping at it when things got hard was just as important. Rachel credits her strong support network and an ability to set personal boundaries as absolutely key to making it though. Her husband, Kevin, knew when to pull her out of the study room, and Mandy knew when to challenge her or help her take space. She had to find balance between staying connected with her social network and staying focused on her studies.
I made a conscious effort to be present [when I was with friends] but also knew people weren’t going to ditch me if I had to disappear again.
She also prioritized major life events, such as the birth of her cousin’s baby girl on the same day as an exam.
I wrote that exam so fast! I don’t even know what I wrote down. But I went straight to the hospital after and got to be one of the first people to hold her, along with the grandparents.
Graduating into a pandemic was complicated. Rachel’s school opted to continue classes online but wasn’t able to facilitate in-person clinic hours at first, delaying graduation indefinitely. She’d booked a cruise to Alaska to celebrate, but that was cancelled too. Her last day of class was celebrated with the click of a mouse, not the cheers she’d envisioned.
It was weird! We did the last three months of class online. It felt like, ‘Is this really it? Is this really the last day?’ It was anticlimactic.
Eventually, the school was able to offer clinic hours to meet the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia’s requirements for board exams, which every RMT has to write in order to practice in BC. The board agreed to accept hours later than their usual cut-off, but the delay meant less time to study for the exams themselves.
We had to push to get [the clinic hours] done. It was 12-hour days sometimes. It was pretty crazy.
The network Rachel had relied on was notably absent during this high-stakes and unpredictable time. She couldn’t study with friends, visit with loved ones, or even hug to celebrate the end of an intense journey she’d shared with a cohort of now-dear friends.
It’s wild. You do this huge 4-step examination and in the end there’s only one option: You either pass or not. I knew I couldn’t dwell on the exams after they’d finished. It was done and I had to trust my gut. I left it all on the field.
In a serendipitous coincidence, Rachel’s exam results came in while her mom was on her massage table. She checked her scores with her mom in-person and Kevin on the phone. She’d not only passed the board exams, but graduated schooling with honours. She’d officially achieved her dream.
Working in the pandemic comes with its own set of challenges. Changing regulations and individual client comfort means Rachel is constantly practicing flexibility and looking for solutions. But she knows she can handle anything now and loves creating a safe place for friends, family, and new patients to get the care they need.
To anyone standing at a crossroads or unsure if they’re 'good enough' to get started, Rachel says,
Time will pass anyway. Why not harness the opportunity to do something awesome during that time? Looking back, I’m so glad I made the choice when I did. I didn’t want to be sitting at my desk job two years later dreaming of what could have been. I dove in, time passed, and now I’m living the dream I’ve had since I was a kid!
How does Rachel's story inspire you? What lesson are you taking away from her experience?
I love the notion of 'time will pass anyway' so why not try something and see what's possible?
A regular contributor to the More-In-Me MOVEment blog, Lyndsay Barrett is a freelance writer, editor and instructional designer specializing in digital outreach and learning environments. She's particularly interested in technology's ability to connect people through stories. Visit her website to learn more about Lyndsay and her work.