New scholarship celebrates an O.T. legacy

Joanne Foss pins a graduating Master of Occupational Therapy student at a 2017 reception and awards ceremony.

By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow   

Joanne Foss, Ph.D., O.T.R., FAOTA, a professor emerita of the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions department of occupational therapy, didn’t always dream of becoming a clinical practitioner. While attending high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Foss was tasked with exploring various career paths by connecting with individuals doing work that intrigued her. Drawn to working with children with autism, she sought out an opportunity to complete a special project under the mentorship of an occupational therapist. She didn’t realize it then, but this marked the beginning of a successful and rewarding career in occupational therapy.   

Before her retirement from UF in 2017, Foss served the occupational therapy field in multiple capacities, from clinician to educator to leader. She began her career as a clinical occupational therapist, working in early intervention, hospital and school settings. Foss would go on to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in adult and child development, pediatric assessment and intervention, and professional development.   

“More than anything, I enjoyed the interactions with my students and helping them to prepare for a professional role,” Foss said. “I taught many small lab classes at PHHP in pediatrics, and we would work together on different interventions. Getting down on the floor with the students and teaching them how to work with young children and implement interventions was so much fun. We laughed a lot.”  

Joanne Foss, Ph.D., O.T.R., FAOTA.

Foss has received several teaching awards at the department, college and academic health center levels, and has mentored hundreds of current and former students as they pursue careers in patient care, academia and research.  

Now, she and her husband are giving back to the next generation of UF occupational therapists through the Joanne J. Foss OT Student Scholarship.  

“I’ve been teaching for over 40 years, 30 with the University of Florida. When I retired, I had time to think more about the impact of my students on my life, my career, how I think and the person I am,” Foss said. “I wanted to continue to make some sort of impact on students, even though I’m not teaching them directly.”  

The fund supports students pursuing a career change and first-generation college students in the PHHP Doctor of Occupational Therapy program. It honors the students and faculty Foss encountered in her career who challenged her to open her mind by sharing their own perspectives and stories.   

“Some of my favorite students are career changers because they really want to be there to learn and they know that this is what they want to do because they’ve had the opportunity to be out in the world,” Foss said. “They’re more likely to be older students, and I can relate to that. I didn’t finish my Ph.D. until I was in my 50s. I had children, a job and a husband working hard, and I have a soft spot for that kind of juggling in one’s life.”   

Career changers and first-generation students, she says, are often facing barriers to pursuing doctoral-level education, such as balancing multiple other relationships and obligations. The aim of this scholarship is to support these students and celebrate the diverse backgrounds and experiences of future occupational therapy providers.   

“One of my first-generation college students went home to make a meal to last the week for a mother who had a disability. She was a great student, and I enjoyed her perspective on what we were learning,” Foss said.  

“I admire first-generation college students so much because they don’t always get the support or have folks behind them, really helping them along the way. That group of students has always been a group that I want to get behind.”  

Perseverance, reiterates Foss, is at the heart of this scholarship.   

In addition to honoring student impact, the scholarship also celebrates the life and legacy of Foss’ grandmother, Louisa Chambers, who embodied perseverance and passed on the importance of education and keeping a positive perspective in life.   

“She was one of the most positive people that I have ever encountered, and in the years that I knew her and the time that I spent with her, she had every right to complain about a lot of things. But I never heard her say a mean thing about another person or group of people. She was always positive,” Foss said.   

When asked about what kind of legacy she hopes this scholarship will leave, Foss hopes that it will inspire recipients to help future generations as they progress in their careers as occupational therapists.   

“There are a lot of people that contribute to the trajectory of your career, and it’s important to be thankful for that, but also help the next generation to take advantage of it as well,” Foss said. “I think this is one way of keeping occupational therapy strong as a profession — if we all contribute to the next therapist that comes behind us.”