by Katie Lamar Jackson
Looking for a meaningful, well-paid career that can take you places and that you can take anywhere? Southern Union State Community College’s Therapeutic Massage Program may be just the ticket.
According to TM program coordinator Kendall Yates, demand for licensed massage professionals is on the rise as more and more people recognize the health and wellness benefits provided by therapeutic massage, a fact that Yates learned through her own personal experience.
An alumna of SU’s TM program, Yates found her way to the field of massage therapy by accident and also because of an accident that occurred during her senior year at Troup High School in LaGrange, Ga. At the time, she was a stand-out softball player on track to realize her dream of joining the U.S. Women’s Olympic softball team. But three days before her senior prom, a horrific car crash left Yates temporarily paralyzed and, some 12 surgeries later, “pretty much metal from the waist down.”
Her Olympic dream dashed, Yates switched her sights to a career as an athletic trainer and, still healing from the wreck, began taking her core classes at Southern Union’s Opelika campus. It was there that she heard about SU’s three-semester massage therapy certificate program, which at the time was taught in the evenings, and realized it could be a perfect part-time job to help pay her way through college.
She entered the program expecting to learn a few basic massage techniques but quickly discovered it was so much more. “The amount of knowledge we were learning completely rocked my world,” she said. And because she and her fellow students honed their skills by working with each other, her own health improved.
“I was able to walk a little better and my gait and my posture (which had been altered by the accident) began to change for the better,” she said. “I fell in love with the rehabilitation side of massage by going through it personally.”
Sure enough, Yates did put her massage therapy skills to work while she was in school, and they came in handy when she returned to SU in 2009 and ended up teaching in and then directing the entire TM program for six years. Though she left SU for a few years to work as a career coach at Calhoun Community College and in local schools in north Alabama, by 2019 Yates was back in east-central Alabama and soon serving again as SU’s TM program coordinator.
The program, which admits students annually in small cohorts (typically no more than 20 students per cohort), is designed to blend classroom learning with hands-on experience. Students not only work with one another, but they also hold weekly community clinics (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and provide other hands-on outreach activities. In addition, they interact with and are supported by local community leaders and partners, including spas and other related businesses eager to recruit graduates.
According to Yates, the program prepares students to “hit the ground running” toward a wide variety of career, options ranging from self-employment to working at health clubs, medical clinics, chiropractor offices, athletic departments, spas, salon,s and holistic health centers.
Demand for SU’s TM graduates is already high—the program boasts a near 100-percent job placement rate—and it’s growing, which is one reason SU launched Alabama’s first-of-its-kind associate’s degree in Wellness and Therapeutic Massage in 2022.
Both the certificate and degree-track programs prepare students to sit for massage therapist board exams, but the associate’s degree track also certifies them in CPR, first aid, wellness and personal training and can open doors to other four-year degrees.
To meet demand, the popular program is expanding this fall to the Wadley campus where it can serve students in Randolph and surrounding counties. It will also better serve SU’s athletic program, which is centered on the Wadley campus, by allowing massage therapy students to work more closely with student-athletes, to meet their modality, recover,y and rehabilitation needs.
For Shatequa Caldwell, a recent graduate of the Wellness and Therapeutic Massage degree program, it’s that kind of hands-on opportunity that made her love her time at SU.
Originally from Camp Hill and now living in Tallassee, Ala., Caldwell discovered the TM program when she decided to go back to school after an eight-year hiatus. By then she had three young daughters and was nervous about returning to the classroom, especially as an older-than-average student. But she also knew that massage therapy was the career route she wanted to take because of her own firsthand experience with its healing powers.
“After I had my last daughter, I started getting massages to help with post-partum depression,” she said. “It was a game-changer for me, and it helped me so much physically and mentally that I knew that’s the route I wanted to go to pursue a career.”
Caldwell loved the small class sizes, hands-on training and straightforward instruction style, but she especially loved being surrounded by like-minded fellow students who encouraged one another. “We were like family,” she said.
Caldwell finished the certification program in December 2022 and graduated in May with her Wellness and Massage Therapy associate’s degree. Even before graduating, Caldwell had landed a job at Absolute Therapy in Auburn where she works as a receptionist and massage therapist.
“I don’t think anyone coming out of this program will have trouble getting a job,” she said. “I feel like the options are endless.” Caldwell said her current job is “amazing” and has already helped her expand her massage therapy skills while showing her how to run a business. Eventually, Caldwell hopes to expand into sports massage therapy, which she was exposed to by working on SU’s athletes, and someday start her own practice.
“The program can be for anyone at any stage of life,” Caldwell added. “No matter how old or young you are, or whether you have kids or don’t have kids, the program is flexiblethe for everybody to succeed.”
With that in mind, Yates hopes to add yet another option to the TM lineup—restarting an evening program to offer further accessibility for people who work or have other daytime responsibilities.
And she wants people to know this: “Whether you make it your full-time career or not, you can take this profession anywhere and set up shop, she said. “The sky’s the limit.”
To learn more about the TM program and its application process, contact SU’s Health Sciences admission or advising offices at 334-745-6437 or email Yates at firstname.lastname@example.org. Registration for fall semester at Southern Union is now open.