The enduring influence of academic mentorship

By Anne Riker Garlington

Dr. Lela Llorens with students
Dr. Lela Llorens with students

Every so often, someone leaves a lasting impression on our lives, guiding us toward becoming better versions of ourselves. 

Educators possess that power to positively influence many of their students through mentorship. The bonds formed with our professors often linger in our memories, shaping our perspectives over the years.

For University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions alumna Karen Green Barnes, M.O.T., who received bachelor’s (’80) and master’s (’82) degrees in occupational therapy, that influential person is Lela Llorens, Ph.D., O.T.R., FAOTA, who served as chair of the UF department of occupational therapy from 1976 to 1982.

Barnes and Llorens shared their thoughts on the importance of mentorship, the role of occupational therapy in their lives and how one incredibly special houseplant has come to symbolize so much.

Karen Green Barnes with spider plant.
Karen Green Barnes displays the spider plants that started as a plantlet from Dr. Lela Llorens in the early 80s.

Barnes worked as an occupational therapist in several hospitals in the Tampa Bay area as well as in a private practice. She briefly left the profession to raise her two sons but returned to the practice and retired in 2021. Barnes continues to retain her occupational therapy license.

Question: What was your relationship with Dr. Lela Llorens?

Answer: Dr. Llorens served as my academic mentor, urging me to push the boundaries of my research. As a graduate student, she encouraged me to present my research at a Florida Occupational Therapy Association conference, instilling confidence in my abilities and challenging me to exceed my own expectations.

She persuaded me to strive for professional achievement and do things above and out of my comfort level. She was a positive role model who helped me become a better occupational therapist.

Q: What is a specific memory you have from your time learning from Dr. Llorens?

A: We had a small master’s degree class with only seven students, most of whom came from all over the country to study with Dr. Llorens. She was well known for her experience as a clinician and leadership skills in higher education. One evening, she invited us to dinner at her home and as we were leaving, she gave us each a plantlet from her spider plant. 

That small gift of a spider plant has lasted a lifetime. I’ve nurtured and propagated the same plant over the years. As I’ve grown older, it means more to me, primarily because of my connection to Dr. Llorens, UF and the profession of OT.

Q: What is the story of the spider plant?

A: April is national Occupational Therapy Month, and we would get the OTs together from our hospital system. Because I had all these little plantlets, I decided to give one to each of the attendees as a small token to acknowledge the impact Dr. Llorens had in our field. Through the years, I’ve continued to share the plantlets with others as my way of honoring her influence.

Occupational therapy has been my profession and part of my identity. I would say that it has influenced my frame of reference and view in life. Even in retirement, I can’t help thinking like an occupational therapist.

Editor’s note: Last fall, Barnes reached out to Llorens to express appreciation for the impact she had on her professional development and their mentoring relationship. She also shared the story of the spider plant. Llorens enjoyed hearing from Barnes and was pleased with impact of the spider plant. Because she moved so many times in her career, she no longer has the original plant.

Dr. Lela Llorens
Dr. Lela Llorens

A celebrated clinician, researcher, educator and leader, Lela Llorens was named one of the 100 most influential people in occupational therapy by the American Occupational Therapy Association. Her career extended over 50 years. She retired as a professor emerita from San Jose State University in 1996. She then extended her expertise as a member of the faculty at the University of Southern California until 2006.

Question: Why is mentorship important? 

A: All faculty should serve as mentors and pass along the culture of the profession. We expect a high standard of excellence in the profession. At different points in the career of a student, various recommendations are needed for their professional development. It is important for faculty to be attuned to the students’ needs and help refine their professional skills.

Q: What stands out for you from your time at UF?

A: It is where I began my academic career. Previously I had been a practicing occupational therapist and conducting research. 

I was hired by Alice C. Jantzen, Ph.D., O.T.R, FAOTA, who was known for the care of her students and an outstanding mentoring program. Dr. Jantzen was a role model for me and mentored me on teaching, as I mentored her on practicing occupational therapy.

Q: What has teaching occupational therapy meant in your life?

A: Occupational therapy is a way of life for me. As I’ve said in many of my talks, occupational therapy is a lifespan practiced with patients from infants to aging.

I tried to emulate the mentors who inspired me and encouraged me to accomplish all I’ve done. I still have former students who reach out for mentoring. It is important to share what I know.

Faculty make indelible impressions and have a lasting impact on the occupational therapist the students will become. As a role model, a mentor must coach and guide the lives of their students.