College of Education and Human Development

Institute of Child Development

Meet Cala Hefferan, ICD MA alumna and Certified Child Life Specialist

Photo of Cala Hefferan with her dog

Cala Hefferan is a 2021 graduate of the Institute of Child Development's master's program in applied child and adolescent development - child life track. Today, you can find her at the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB), where she is one of the Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) and the Primary Facility Dog Handler. We caught up with Cala to find out how her master's program prepared her for her current role.

Photo of Cala Hefferan with her dog
Cala Hefferan, MA, CCLS, and MIDB Facility Dog Jersey

Tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to pursue the master's in applied child and adolescent development-child life at ICD?  

I knew I wanted to work with kids in the hospital setting, but I needed to figure out what the best fit for a profession was for me. I volunteered in hospitals and clinics during my undergraduate studies and shadowed different healthcare professionals. While volunteering, I had the opportunity to work with a child life specialist and learn more about what the work of a child life specialist looked like, and I knew then that being a CCLS was the right fit for me. My husband and I started a family shortly after I graduated from my undergrad, and it was important to me to have time at home with kids when they were little. I decided to wait a few years before starting graduate school to pursue working as a CCLS. During that time, I worked part-time as a child life associate (CLA) at Children's Minnesota. My experience as a CLA and my healthcare experiences as a parent only affirmed my desire to be a CCLS. I applied and began my graduate studies in applied child and adolescent development-child life at the University of Minnesota-ICD.  

What were some of the highlights of the program? Did you have a favorite course? 

When I think back on my time in the master's program, I have very fond memories. The program was academically challenging. However, I always felt supported in the process. The advisor and staff/faculty prioritized cultivating a supportive community within our cohort. The most challenging and favorite class was research methods. I came into the program with a lot of applicable knowledge from my experience as a CLA, and this knowledge and experience were very supportive of my learning in most of my classes. However, when it came to research methods, I learned early on that I had a knowledge gap. It took extra effort and time to grasp the foundational aspects of the class so that I could apply the knowledge to the practice of a CCLS. The additional effort and time cultivated a newfound respect and interest for the study, application, and involvement in pediatric research. Today, I work closely with talented and dedicated researchers at MIDB to support pediatric research.  

Child life specialist in a clinical room demonstrates toy medical equipment on her facility dog for a child

Tell us about your current position and any ways in which the online master's program prepared you for it? 

I started the child life program at MIDB in November of 2022. As a child life specialist at MIDB, I collaborate with providers and researchers to provide child life services to patients at the MHealth Fairview outpatient clinics and The Center for Neurobehavioral Development (CNBD) research studies at MIDB. While attending the master's program, I learned skills that have been integral to the work I have done to implement child life services at a new location. Some of these skills include interdisciplinary communication, professional boundaries, fundamentals of program development, including advocating for and supporting the need for services through evidence-based research, understanding research methods, and an appreciation for actively participating in and supporting pediatric research. Most importantly, though, I think I learned from pursuing my master's through the online master's program that taking a leap to try something challenging that, in a lot of ways, seems intimidating can be precisely what keeps me learning and striving to be the best child life specialist I can be.  

What advice would you give to someone considering a child life career? 

The work of a child life professional requires grit and determination. While our work may appear to be all fun and games for those doing the work, we know there is always more than meets the eye. As you consider a career in child life, consider what YOU need to prepare yourself to be a child life specialist. I encourage you to think beyond checking the required boxes and to take the time to ask yourself, "What do I need to feel confident in my practice as a CCLS?"