Director of the School of Occupational Therapy Nicolaas van den Heever poses for a photo. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)
Nicolaas van den Heever, director of the School of Occupational Therapy, poses for a photo. van den Heever is an international expert in the administration and education of occupational therapy. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

International Expert Heads School of Occupational Therapy

Aug 21, 2017
Kristen Bowman

Dr. Nicolaas van den Heever, an international expert in administration and education of occupational therapy, officially joined the faculty at Brenau University as associate professor and director of the School of Occupational Therapy.

Brenau recruited van den Heever after a year-long national search to replace the 22-year-old school’s founding director, Barbara Boyt Schell, who retired in 2016. Van den Heever served for the past five years as founding dean and program director for the Master of Science occupational therapy program at West Coast University in Irvine, California, where he had been a faculty member since 2009. His experience building that program was instrumental in his move to Brenau.

“It was both a personal and professional move,” van den Heever said. “At a personal level, I wanted to make a change from the Los Angeles area. I wanted to be in a place where the lifestyle was not so rushed, was quieter and was more affordable. When I came here for my interview, I had a three-day interview process. And I felt at the end of it that there was a complete match between how I see occupational therapy education and how Brenau does it.”

Occupational therapy is the health profession committed to helping all people participate in necessary and meaningful activities of life. The Brenau University School of Occupational Therapy provides graduate education programs, including a doctorate, preparing students to become occupational therapists who excel in practice, inquiry and advocacy.

The school engages with the larger professional and client community to encourage high-quality services and to advocate for the health and participation of people through meaningful occupation.

“I saw that there was a lot of opportunity here for me,” van den Heever said. “I do want to grow, and I wanted to get involved in a bigger structure and bigger organization. I wanted to tap into my skills, which are operational and leadership-based. But I also wanted to have new challenges, and I think that’s what I found at Brenau. There is a lot of opportunity for me to use my skills and to expand this program.”

His objectives include introducing a pathway to an occupational therapy doctorate directly from undergraduate preparation. That differs from the existing occupational therapy doctorate, which requires both a master’s degree and professional experience before admission. “But we are interested in also having an entry-level track, which is the direction the profession is going,” he said.

He also plans to study how the school can streamline its approach to education – how they can “work smart, not hard.

“One of my roles this year will be to work with the three program chairs and find how we can streamline,” van den Heever said. “The reason is to ultimately touch the education experience of the students. I want to really put Brenau on the map, so that prospective students know there is no other choice in terms of OT education like Brenau.”

A native of South Africa, van den Heever earned his bachelor’s from the University of Stellenbosch near Cape Town and his doctorate from the University of Saint Augustine in Florida.

Now in his 35th year as an occupational therapist, van den Heever spent years in the health care industry before transitioning to health care education. He was administrative director of business development and operation for Alvarado Hospital in San Diego, then regional director for Select Therapies/Covenant Care. Finally, he was director of hospital education, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation services, and the arthritis and bone and joint clinic for Tenet Healthcare for four years in Indio, California.

His experience was wide, he said, calling it both “traditional and nontraditional.” He worked for the World Health Organization in the 1990s in China, developing new rehabilitation practices that were unheard of at the time in the country.

“I have seen the whole scape of health care and literally have fulfilled every role in the health care sector: from being a staff therapist all the way to being a hospital administrator,” he said. “I have so much to share, in terms of experience and skill, and I want to share it with future occupational therapists. I had a very strong vision of what OT education should look like, and I got the opportunity to start a program from the ground up. Now, that reality of what occupational therapy should look like is what I found at Brenau, and I am able to continue it here.”