Woman standing and leaning next to a tree
Occupational therapist Becky Zenkevich is completing a certificate in aging studies at VCU. She has done so while living in five cities in three countries over the past half-decade and being away from a parent battling cancer. (Photo by Jan Egger)

Class of 2020: Becky Zenkevich is looking within, and learning to better care for older adults

The occupational therapist and gerontology student has lived through several jarring life events — and on three continents — while taking classes at VCU.

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Becky Zenkevich was working as an occupational therapist in Texas when she began noticing an alarming pattern among peers in her field: Nobody wanted to work with older adult patients.

“Everybody had a negative idea [about it] — that it was punishment to be sent to the geriatric ward to do treatment,” Zenkevich said. “And it bothered me. I kept trying to do my own research and figure out what the best options were to help these individuals, and I realized there was a huge gap missing in our literature all over the world on working with older adults.”

Spurred by a desire to find answers, Zenkevich eventually enrolled as a graduate student in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Health Professions. She will complete a certificate in aging studies next month from the college’s gerontology program.

But her path from Texas to VCU graduate was not linear. Those early experiences noticing issues with treating older patients took place 10 years ago. In the past half-decade, Zenkevich, her husband, Alexei, and their children, Maks and Jade, have lived on three continents, and Zenkevich has juggled the stress that comes with starting new jobs, living in new countries, and — in an ironic twist for someone in her field — being away from a parent battling chronic and life-threatening diseases. 

‘It’s about all people; it’s about us’

Zenkevich is from Canada, and grew up in British Columbia and Alberta. Her mother, Jan Egger, was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer for 13 years. Her father, Don Egger, worked in telecommunications. He accepted a job in the United States in 1999 and the family moved to Texas, where Zenkevich (then Becky Egger) earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas Woman’s University and then spent seven years working as an occupational therapist in Dallas. 

In 2015, as Zenkevich was getting serious about going back to school, her husband accepted a job that involved relocating to Houston. But before the family moved, the new company changed Alexei Zenkevich’s assignment and transferred him to Moscow, Russia. The Zenkevich family would spend four years there, adjusting to a new country and language.

“I really lost myself, to be honest with you,” Becky Zenkevich said. 

To help with the transition, Zenkevich volunteered at a local hospital and at the American Women’s Organization of Moscow, which connects North American expats living in the city. She also started researching graduate programs in earnest.

“I kept going back to me as an occupational therapist and what I missed,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I can’t go back [into this field] until I know something more about working with older adults.’” 

VCU, she said, “kept popping up” in her searches. After about a year, she called the College of Health Professions and spoke with Ayn Welleford, Ph.D., an associate professor in the gerontology program. Welleford encouraged Zenkevich to consider the college’s certificate program in aging studies. Zenkevich applied and began taking classes online from Russia in January 2019. She also started connecting with her instructors — notably Tracey Gendron, Ph.D., an associate professor who became Zenkevich’s mentor in the program. 

“[Becky] had a very deep, passionate desire — from the very start — not only to work with older adults and to improve health care for older adults, but she also had that introspection that we look for,” said Gendron, who also serves as the Department of Gerontology’s chair. “Gerontology is not about other people, it’s about all people; it’s about us. And the more we start to look within to say, ‘Hey, we’re all aging, and this is about us,’ the better we will be. I think Becky got that from the very beginning.” 

Lessons in introspection

The aging studies certificate features courses in biology and research. But it is rooted in self-reflection. One required class, on the psychology of aging, focuses on understanding yourself, Zenkevich said. 

“[The classes] bring to light that you have to figure out where you are in your own lifespan, how OK you are with it and what else you are prepared to do and become,” she said. “I love the psychological approach. It’s not just textbook reading; it’s in-depth and meaningful reflections that are pertinent to helping us build foundations as gerontologists.” 

This approach — of asking students to examine themselves as a person who is aging before they serve others — is key to VCU’s program, Gendron said. As Zenkevich progressed in her classes, she found she was able to use this approach to better understand socioeconomic factors in older adult care and recognize ageism. She could better comprehend the idea of aging and the changes a person goes through later in life — a period Gendron and other academics refer to as “elderhood.” And Zenkevich also drew from her experience as a health care professional who has lived in three large countries with different cultures. 

“[That] had a huge impact on the whole classroom, and for faculty as well,” Gendron said. “We talk about aging globally and we talk about cultural differences, but to have someone who can speak to it firsthand was really helpful — to be able to put it into context and give specifics.” 

Zenkevich and Gendron have never met in person, but they communicate monthly, usually via video chat. Gendron, Zenkevich said, has been “my pillar” through several rocky personal events that have marked her time as a VCU student and underscored the importance of her field of study. 

Weeks after Zenkevich began taking classes, her mother, now back in Alberta, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Zenkevich spent her first semester as a VCU student taking classes from Moscow and traveling to Canada for her mother’s surgery and recovery. That summer, Alexei Zenkevich’s contract in Russia expired and his company relocated the family to Atlanta, Georgia, where Becky Zenkevich started a job as an acute care occupational therapist, working mainly with older adults. 

She loved the job — and her classes — but the situation at home compounded. Zenkevich’s son struggled with the transition back to the U.S., and in May, Zenkevich’s mother received another diagnosis: She had breast cancer. That same month, Alexei Zenkevich's employer told him to find a new job at the company; his department was disbanding. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the U.S.

“I lost a lot of control of my life and everything around me,” Zenkevich said. 

She took an incomplete on one of her classes. Her professors, she said, had been supportive throughout her time as a VCU student, and were especially so now. Zenkevich had wanted to quit after her mother’s brain tumor diagnosis and sometimes found it difficult to focus on classwork the past two years. However, she also wanted to complete the program. And she believed her professors were invested in her.

“When my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor I really panicked, but I didn’t hesitate to reach out to my professors because I thought if anyone would understand the situation, it would be them,” Zenkevich said. “They were always there for me. And because of that support, I always had the desire and motivation to push forward.”

‘Invaluable’ knowledge 

In May, Alexei Zenkevich accepted a new job … in Switzerland.

“We landed July 23,” Becky Zenkevich said with a tired laugh. “It’s been a lot, to say the least.” 

Though she sometimes had to limit the number of courses she took in a given semester, Zenkevich never stopped. Finishing is important, she said, because she “will be able to apply this knowledge every day — [as an] occupational therapist, a wife, a friend, a daughter.”

“It’s invaluable,” she said. 

Zenkevich plans to continue working as an occupational therapist, specifically in geriatrics. She’s also considering Ph.D. programs in gerontology. For now, she plans to take a break from academics and settle into her new life in Europe (she aims to become fluent in French). But first, she had one more flight to make across the Atlantic — a special and “very last minute” trip last week to Canada, where she surprised her mom for her 65th birthday.