Congratulations to the recipient of the fifth annual Jim Hinojosa Distinguished Alumni Award, Suzanne Sanchez, 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 (OT) alumni who have made significant contributions to the profession.
Suzanne Sanchez received a BA in Occupational Therapy from NYU OT in 1996. Since then, she has worked at the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE), where she first began as a senior occupational therapist. Suzanne is now the organization's Senior Director of Therapy Services, where she is responsible for the development, implementation, and leadership of the DOE’s occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy programs. She also oversees the implementation of assistive technology supports for students with disabilities.
In her role, Suzanne oversees 100 clinical supervisors, 15 program managers, and 5 program directors serving 1,100 schools and hundreds of thousands of students. We connected with Suzanne to learn more about her journey as an OT and her role in making education accessible for students with disabilities.
What inspired you to pursue occupational therapy initially?
I was inspired to pursue OT because of the mental health component embedded in the profession. At that time, I was debating between a psychology program or an OT program. Once I saw the course work, fieldwork, and employment opportunities (in so many different settings), it was an easy choice to pursue OT.
What drew you to work in a school-based therapy setting after graduating with your OT degree?
I was fortunate enough to have received a scholarship from the NYC DOE and therefore was required to work there for two years after graduating. Initially, I planned on leaving after two years to pursue a career in orthopedic rehabilitation. However, once I started working in the schools with students, I was hooked! As an OT in the school system, I had the opportunity to work with teachers, students, and their families. I worked with students with a variety of disabilities and utilized the skills I learned in OT school and from fieldwork.
What do you consider your most significant professional accomplishment so far?
My answer is two-fold: clinically, the development of NYC DOE Occupational Therapy/Physical Therapy Practice Guide is a truly significant accomplishment. The Practice Guide details best practices for school-based services and provides a road map for therapists to implement those best practices. This was a significant change in the culture of practice in the DOE – one that I believe has positively impacted thousands of students.
From a management standpoint, I have also been able to develop a cohesive and student-centered management team with a focus that is holistic in nature. I view myself as a coach constantly seeking to better understand my team, understand their learning styles, and lead by example.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future with your work?
I hope to further educate families and teachers on how to support students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers. Too often, students with disabilities are separated from their peers and there is no reason they cannot learn and socialize together!
What advice do you have for OTs and other service providers beginning their careers?
My advice for beginning OTs, first and foremost, is to soak up everything you can during fieldwork because those experiences are invaluable. Secondly, an OT should be a life-long learner consistently seeking out opportunities to enhance their skills. Third, but equally important, is to understand the importance of people skills or "soft-skills." Understanding the "whole person" is so crucial to any successful intervention!
How do you think your education at NYU prepared you for your career?
NYU prepared me for my career in a few distinct ways. At the time, I had no idea how valuable group process courses would be as those classes prepared me to work in groups (which is much of one’s professional life) and understand how group dynamics impact productivity. Additionally, the high standards set by each of my NYU professors set the tone for my professional life.
OT course content is so relevant to leading a multi-disciplinary team. I utilize the principles of task analysis on a daily basis which has been a cornerstone of my success.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I view my education and connection with the NYU Steinhardt Department of Occupational Therapy as the single most important factor in my professional life. Not only was my participation in the program itself important, but being an alum of the department allows access to an impressive group of OTs working in a variety of settings!