Story by Rachel Sipes
After 32 years in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Colorado State University, Patty Stutz-Tanenbaum is retiring in December. Throughout the years, over 2500 students have been able to experience clinical opportunities and learn the professional role of occupational therapy in the work place in part due to Stutz-Tanenbaum’s efforts. As academic fieldwork coordinator, she has spent countless hours working with students and various occupational therapists across Colorado, other states and even other countries to place students for these fieldwork experiences.
From Kansas to Colorado
Stutz-Tanenbaum graduated from the University of Kansas in 1976 and worked as an occupational therapist in various pediatric school settings for a little more than 10 years. She shared that her love for problem solving, creativity and arts and crafts first drew her to the profession. She learned about occupational therapy from her older sister, who also studied it at the University of Kansas. Stutz-Tanenbaum went back to get her master’s degree at CSU and this led to her academic fieldwork coordinator position.
Looking back she shared, “Wow, you never know how things will shape up and what opportunities may arise. I really value learning and it has been such an exciting part of my position through the years as I have been able to work with so many other people in the department that have a commitment to learning and excellence.”
Building on students’ experiences
Stutz-Tanenbaum’s efforts have led to many outstanding accomplishments throughout her career. Most notably, when sharing about some of her most rewarding experiences, she said, “Integrating fieldwork more into the curriculum and coursework has been one of the greatest accomplishments for me. It has not always been that way. Now, in many classes students talk about fieldwork and are asked to provide examples and relate fieldwork to the class discussions and assignments.”
Before this transition to integrating the practical and clinical experiences of fieldwork into the didactic lectures and labs, fieldworks were more isolated and took place during the students’ breaks. Now, students are able to make more direct connections and facilitate the learning process by having clinical experience dispersed throughout the semester while they are also in the classroom.
Also, there are two, 12-week level II fieldwork placements that students complete in the first and second summers. Stutz-Tanenbaum noted this as a big accomplishment and a unique part of CSU’s occupational therapy program compared to the traditional model of having both 12-week fieldworks at the very end of the program. She shared, “Having one level II fieldwork after the first year and the second level II at the very end integrates it so that students are better able to build on their experiences and come back to ask more reflective, advanced questions.”
She continued, “There is such growth in the understanding and appreciation of practice that students bring into coursework the second year. This bumps up the expectation—students are wanting to get more out of classes because they better understand what practice is really about and they have achieved entry level competency. This also pushes the faculty to come up to a higher level as well, and all of this is a really positive thing.”
Changing the atmosphere
Stutz-Tanenbaum has seen many changes throughout her years in both the role and job duties of an academic fieldwork coordinator as well as the profession of occupational therapy as a whole. When she started in this position more than 30 years ago, she shared, “It was all really crisis oriented—it was all about putting out fires and dealing with people not being happy and things not going well in fieldwork.”
“So after being in that mode for a couple of years, I realized I didn’t want to live that way. So I had a commitment of moving to a better model, because at that point, students had limited choice in their fieldwork placements,” commented Stutz-Tanenbaum.
She noted that research shows when students have a choice in where they go for clinical experience, they have more commitment to following through and they are more successful. So, since then, Stutz-Tanenbaum has revamped the department’s fieldwork system and integrated more of a choice model which created a better environment for all students, fieldwork coordinators and occupational therapy educators involved.
Not only has she made big contributions to the students’ and the educators’ experiences of fieldwork placements through the department, but she has also made significant contributions at the national level with the American Occupational Therapy Association. For several years, Stutz-Tanenbaum served on the Commission on Education representing all academic fieldwork coordinators in the country. Here, she was able to facilitate fieldwork meetings nationwide and contribute to overall standards, expectations and best-practice regarding fieldwork. Stutz-Tanenbaum noted that in this position, one of her greatest goals, in collaboration with others including Caryn Johnson from Thomas Jefferson University, was creating a national, collaborative network amongst fieldwork coordinators. This led to a cultural shift of the overall fieldwork placement environment. Through collaboration, better training, creation of the AOTA Fieldwork Educator Certificate Program and more clear expectations of fieldwork, the fieldwork culture improved, moving from a tense, competitive environment to a more cooperative and collaborative atmosphere.
Alison Herman, the department’s new academic fieldwork coordinator shared, “Patty has made a tremendous impact on fieldwork education at CSU and nationally through the AOTA. She has produced many resources that have been highly utilized at the local and national levels and will continue to be used to support successful fieldwork experiences for students and fieldwork educators.”
Receiving the highest honor
Most recently, Stutz-Tanenbaum was nominated by two CSU occupational therapy alumnae to receive the Marjorie Ball Award of Merit through the local Occupational Therapy Association of Colorado. This award is the highest honor for occupational therapists in Colorado. It is chosen based on the contributions the person has made in the profession of occupational therapy within the state. Each year, the recipient is invited to speak at the OTAC Conference. Stutz-Tanenbaum recently spoke at this year’s conference held in Aurora, Colorado. The title of her talk was “Aspiring for Inclusive Excellence in Occupational Therapy: A Time for Reflection and Call for Action!”
“It seemed logical to do the presentation about fieldwork. That is my professional passion and my life’s work. But at the same time, I had just taken the CSU Office for Vice President of Diversity Faculty Institute on Inclusive Excellence when I was nominated for the award. I did a fellowship with them, which is a semester-long training and project. I had been concerned about student experiences in our program and out on fieldwork because diverse students had not always been treated the same as white, middle-class students,” she shared. “When we had diverse students they had problems at a much higher rate and I wanted to better understand what that was about.”
So, Stutz-Tanenbaum went forth working with a few students and learned more about implicit bias and microaggressions. She decided to make this the focus of her talk to help provide insight about the importance of reflecting the population changes in the profession of occupational therapy and address our own assumptions and biases as practitioners as the profession continues to grow and evolve.
In addition to this prestigious award Stutz-Tanenbaum has been recognized for her service at the state and national levels and has received awards at CSU including the Jack E. Cermak Advising Award and the College of Applied Human Sciences Adviser Award. In 2011 she was recognized for her excellence by being inducted into the AOTA Roster of Fellows.
Knitting sweaters and baking bread
Looking forward, she is excited about having more time to invest in some of her passions and interests. She noted that she is eager to have more time to spend with her family, including her husband, two doggies and her children and grandchildren. Also, she shared, “I am looking forward to spending more time in the beautiful Colorado mountains and less time commuting on the roads. Also, I want to finally learn to knit because my grandmother was an incredible knitter and made so many beautiful things. I have always tried to pick it up but just didn’t have the time to dedicate to it. So now my goal is to get more into it, and I would really like to make a sweater! I would also like to get back into really enjoying cooking and making bread and pies now that I have the time.”
Looking back, Stutz-Tanenbaum is grateful for so many opportunities and is excited to have Herman taking over as the new fieldwork coordinator. “Looking forward, I am really happy about Alison. She has been such a delight, is such a wonderful person and relates well to students,” she shared.
“And really, I have just had so many wonderful relationships with faculty, staff, and students. I have really loved all of those relationships and they have all given me so much meaning through the years,” continued Stutz-Tanenbaum.
As Stutz-Tanenbaum moves forward into retirement, we are thankful for all the contributions she has made to the department, student experiences and the field of occupational therapy. Herman summed it up well saying, “Her warm presence and active engagement will be missed, but her legacy and commitment to excellence will remain a part of the fieldwork department and CSU-OT.”