Congratulations to the recipient of the sixth annual Jim Hinojosa Distinguished Alumni Award, Michele Mills, MA, OTR/L.
The award, initiated to honor the legacy of the late Dr. Jim Hinojosa at the time of his retirement, recognizes outstanding NYU Steinhardt Department of Occupational Therapy alumni who have made significant contributions to the profession.
Michele Mills received her B.S. and her M.A. in Occupational Therapy from NYU OT as part of her 37-year career as an occupational therapy practitioner and an academician. Currently, Mills is an associate professor at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. Prior, she worked as a practitioner throughout New York, including 13 years in multiple roles at Montefiore Medical Center, as well as in full and adjunct teaching positions at SUNY Downstate, Long Island University, NYU, Columbia University, and more.
Mills is also a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, World Federation of Occupational Therapists, New York State Occupational Therapy Association, and the New York State Black Occupational Therapist Caucus, among others. She was awarded the Dr. Jim Hinojosa Memorial Lectureship Award at the New York State Occupational Therapy Association (NYSOTA) Annual Conference in 2019 and delivered the Dr. Jim Hinojosa Memorial Lectureship at the NYSOTA Virtual Conference in 2020.
What inspired you to pursue occupational therapy initially?
In high school, I always had varied interests—dance, music, academics, being around people. I wanted a healthcare profession that could combine my creativity and my academic abilities. While I was attending the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, my mother found an opportunity for an internship at the Rusk Institute (now part of NYU Langone Health). I was selected for the occupational therapy internship—even though I didn’t know much about it—but spending a month following OTs and learning about the work sealed my interest in the field.
How has your career adapted over the years?
Working with incredible clinicians throughout my career has allowed me to have many different opportunities. When I started working, my main interest was in mental health, which then became an interest in working with people with physical dysfunctions after traumatic brain injuries or strokes, or with chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease. My supervisor at Goldwater Memorial Hospital was Karen Buckley, who taught at NYU OT at the time, and she gave me my first adjunct teaching opportunity there.
I’ve been a director of rehabilitation, chief OT, a consultant, an educator, and a research investigator, among other opportunities. I have also had the opportunity to publish and present at various conferences.
What do you consider your most significant professional accomplishment so far?
Being able to mentor a lot of clinicians over the years. I supervised my first student as a student fieldwork instructor 35 years ago, and since then I’ve been able to help people grow in the profession within all types of settings. I feel that it’s a big accomplishment to see people I taught in the past out there doing wonderful things—clinicians with 15 years of experience, being business owners, getting their doctorates, being educators. I know I’ve helped make that mark.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future with your work?
I still have many interests in our profession and moving it forward. I’m working toward becoming a full professor at LaGuardia Community College, and I may decide to go back to school to obtain my doctorate. I also hope to continue promoting diversity in the profession by supporting other clinicians of color.
What advice do you have for OTs and other service providers beginning their careers?
Be open to what the profession affords, and always continue to grow. Don’t feel like you have to be pigeon-holed. Our profession benefits from our ability to expand and develop—from continuing to pursue clinical and academic education to finding mentors in all different aspects of the field, from professors to publishers to clinicians.
How do you think your education at NYU prepared you for your career?
NYU was the best place for me when I transferred there. I’ve had a long-standing connection to NYU since my high school internship and my first teaching role, and it’s always supported my forward movement.
What does this award mean to you?
Because I was lucky enough to have a relationship with Jim, this award means a lot. Jim was the one who wrote the grant that enabled me to get my post-professional master’s degree in OT from NYU. He also gave me my first opportunity to present at an AOTA conference, which was based on an independent study he suggested to me. He was my advisor and mentor and the ultimate multi-tasker, and as our relationship developed, I recognized even more of his brilliance. I owe a lot to Jim, and I’m honored to receive his award.
Michele Mills NYU Distinguished Alumni Jim Hinojosa Award Speech April 2022
NYU afforded me the learning environment to become an occupational therapist and beyond. NYU played a significant role in my career in education. My very first teaching opportunity occurred in the late 1980s in the NYU Department of Occupational Therapy.
I met Jim during my first full-time teaching opportunity in 1989 / 1990, as an adjunct assistant professor at SUNY Downstate. It was his final semester at SUNY Downstate, before he joined NYU. It was during that time that he became my mentor. At a later period, Jim’s (Maternal and Infant Child) grant enabled me to pursue and complete my post-professional master’s degree at NYU.
My first AOTA Conference acceptance for presentation occurred in 1994. Jim challenged me to seek the opportunity via a one credit (Independent Study) elective. He was my guiding instructor. Resultant of the acceptance, I participated as a panelist in a presentation at an AOTA Conference in Denver.
I had a “front row seat”, enabling me to recognize Jim’s brilliance. I fondly remember Jim (in his office) with telephone tucked under one ear, typing a manuscript (while standing), and talking to me to direct my independent study project. Jim was the original “Boundary Spanner."
He was one of my references for my current position at LaGuardia Community College. While at LaGuardia Community College, I transitioned from assistant professor to associate professor. This 2021 -2022 academic year, I was recommended for tenure and received approval from President Adams of LaGuardia Community College. It is expected that I will hold the title of associate professor with tenure, as of the fall 2022 semester.
Whenever I think of Jim, I consider the many roles he held and his effect on occupational therapy history… as a leader (NYSOTA, AOTA, NYU, and more), Slagle Lecturer, and “Yes”, Jim the clinician. I was the recipient of a patient whom Jim passed on to me (with expectation of moving him from “peds” to “teen”). He felt that the child had transitioned from his pediatric status and needed adult preparatory intervention. This action revealed Jim as the reflective practitioner.
There is so much more that I can say about Jim and the impression that he has made on my career and the career of many occupational therapy practitioners. Over time, I was lucky to know Jim as a revered leader, a wonderfully inspiring human, and a friend. I accept this award with honor, named after Dr. Jim Hinojosa, as I follow in the footsteps of previous awardees: Dr. Neil Harvison, Dr. Paula Kramer, Dr. Gary Bedell, Dr. Diane Dirette, and Suzanne Sanchez.
I am inspired to continue to do more to promote my professional growth and the profession. I am also keenly aware, as the first Black individual to receive this award, of my obligation to continue to pay it forward in honor of Jim and future clinicians of color and diversity. Thank you to the NYU Occupational Therapy Department leadership and faculty for providing me with this distinguished recognition.