Tony Simmons

For Keegan Welch, a childhood friendship is leading to a career as a behavioral therapist by way of her studies at Florida State University Panama City.

Welch, 20, originally from Chipley, recently received the 2024 OLLI Scholarship from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at FSU. The $1,000 stipend will help her pay for exams in her field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as she pursues a master’s degree.

“I hope to use it to get study materials for the BCBA exam, to become board certified in behavior analysis,” she said. “I want to take the BCBA after graduation in May.”

Welch will receive her bachelor's degree in Psychology in May, then enter the master’s program in ABA. She has spent the last year working as a Registered Behavior Technician at ECAP (the Early Childhood Autism Program) at FSU PC.

“As a tech, I do one-on-one therapy with the kids, working on skills acquisition, verbal skills, fine motor skills, hygiene,” she explained. “It’s all about what the client needs or the family wants for them, and what’s important in their lives right now.”

Her youngest client is 2 years old, and her oldest is 16. She recently helped her oldest client learn to operate a microwave oven so she had more independent living skills.

Welch found her calling as a therapist for people with autism after making friends with an autistic student when they were in the same sixth grade class in Chipley. 

“His name was Clifford,” she said. “We ate lunch together every day, and we walked together at graduation. He sparked my interest in the world of autism. Later, he moved to Panama (City), and we still hang out or get lunch some days.”

Welch knew she wanted to do personal therapy, not teach in an ESE (exceptional student education) classroom. She chose FSU PC because the Psychology Department’s Applied Behavior Analysis program is the first of its kind in the nation, she said. Still, she started her path as a volunteer at ECAP to be sure she was entering the right field.

She is also active in the Student Government Council and the Pre-Law Club.

The OLLI Scholarship is awarded each year to an outstanding FSU Panama City full-time student based on recommendations from faculty and staff members and applications submitted by the candidates. Consideration is given to students who might have some link to OLLI, the older population of the area, the idea of lifelong learning or similar points. For more information about OLLI, visit PC.FSU.edu/olli.