University of Washington Division of Occupational Therapy

Alumnus of the Year

The Alumnus of the Year Award recognizes outstanding alumni from one or more of the University of Washington Division of Occupational Therapy entry-level and advanced degree programs who have made significant contributions to the field of occupational therapy. The Advisory Board selects the recipient each year with the award announced at the annual Clinician-Faculty Meeting. If you would like to nominate someone for this award, email ot@uw.edu.

Alumna of the Year 2019:
Renee Watling
 (MS ’98)

occupational therapy graduate from University of Washington focused on autism research
It was definitely a case of “third time’s the charm” for Renee Watling and occupational therapy. After exploring physical therapy as a PT aide, Watling decided Prosthetics and Orthotics was a better fit and enrolled in the UW P&O Program. There she had her first exposure to OT and decided to change direction again. By the next fall, she had finally found her home as a UW OT student.

After graduating in 1992, Watling worked as a pediatric therapist at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Lynnwood, Washington, and then moved to the Children’s Therapy Unit (CTU) in Puyallup. It was at the CTU that Watling first saw children with autism, a relatively rare diagnosis at the time. Her curiosity about autism, coupled with readiness for a new challenge, brought her back to the UW to do research in this emerging area of practice as part of her Master of Science degree in 1998 and PhD in 2004. Since then, Watling has built a career that combines academia, scholarship, clinical work, and service.

She has taught in the OT programs at the UW and the University of Puget Sound where she is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor. She has played key roles from chapter author to lead editor in the publication of four editions of Autism Through the Lifespan: A Comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach. After additional time as a direct service provider, she now shares her expertise with the clinical community as a consultant and through national and international continuing education. She has been recognized by AOTA for her many volunteer contributions including three terms, with one as Chair, on the Sensory Integration Special Interest Section.


Alumna of the Year 2018:
Patricia Burtner-Freeman
 (MS ’80)

occupational therapist from University of Washington works in pediatric OT
Patricia “Pat” Burtner-Freeman, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, didn’t set out to become an expert clinician, researcher, and educator in pediatric occupational therapy. In fact, she didn’t set out to become an occupational therapist at all. Burtner-Freeman’s initial career goal was to be a nurse. She was just weeks away from starting a nursing program at the University of Puget Sound in the late 1960s when the program unexpectedly closed. Given the option of enrolling in the Med Tech or Occupational Therapy programs instead, she decided to give OT a go.

After graduating, Burtner-Freeman took a job at Olive View Hospital in Los Angeles working with individuals with substance abuse. Her career took a second unexpected turn when the hospital closed after a major earthquake. She took a replacement job as a pediatric OT at the University of Southern California/Los Angeles Medical Center. There, she connected with Jean Ayres and started teaching with the Sensory Integration Group.

Inspired to learn more about research, she completed a Master of OT degree at the UW in 1976. Burtner-Freeman worked as a pediatric OT for several more years before getting a PhD in Motor Control at the University of Oregon. She joined the University of New Mexico OT Program faculty in 1994. For the next 18 years, she conducted research on typical motor development and interventions for children with cerebral palsy, taught multiple pediatrics and other courses, and consulted in several pediatric clinics.

Burtner-Freeman moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 2011, focusing first on writing and then working part-time at the Toddler Learning Center in Oak Harbor. She is the recipient of multiple research and teaching awards and has taught internationally in Mexico, Romania, Russia, and Sri Lanka.


Alumna of the Year 2017:
Betsy VanLeit (MS ’80)

University of Washington MOT graduate
It’s not every occupational therapist who launches their professional career working for the US Forest Service, but that’s where Betsy VanLeit, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, started out. VanLeit was putting her degree in Environmental Education to work in rural Oregon when she realized that she was more invested in people than trees.

After attending a seminar on health professions, she decided to pursue a career in occupational therapy. She graduated from our program 32 years ago. VanLeit’s focus has been on mental health practice from the moment she accepted her first position out of school—developing a geriatric psychiatry program at Renton Hospital. After working for a couple of years as a mental health occupational therapist in the Bay Area, she moved to Albuquerque where she worked in community-based mental health and served as president of the New Mexico State Occupational Therapy Association. VanLeit’s occupational therapy work caught the attention of the University of New Mexico (UNM) and she was recruited to start an Occupational Therapy Program at the school.

As UNM faculty, she continued her focus on community-based mental health practice and added a second love, interdisciplinary education. She served as Director of Rural Health Interdisciplinary Program and Area Health Education Center and taught interprofessional practice in rural communities throughout New Mexico. VanLeit has also conducted disability prevention research in Cambodia and investigated the need for occupational therapy and rehabilitation services in Rwanda.

After serving as Director of the UNM Occupational Therapy Program for four years, VanLeit retired in 2016. She is busy traveling and thinking about new volunteer opportunities where her skills can make a difference.


Alumna of the Year 2016:
Rose Racicot (BS ’87)

UW occupational therapy alumni and occupational therapy advocateRose Racicot learned about occupational therapy as as an undergraduate through the University of Washington Career Center. Her interest in the field was cemented through her volunteer work with swimming programs for children with severe disabilities. She learned patience and the skill to see the abilities through layers of disabilities and how to cheerlead people into small victories.

Racicot’s expertise is in school-based occupational therapy practice and assistive technology. She has been a pediatric occupational therapist in the Kent School District since graduating from the University of Washington Occupational Therapy Program and an active member of the District Assistive Technology team for 15 years. She is long-time advocate for occupational therapy policy and credits her parents for teaching her by example how to react to injustices by becoming part of the solution. In 2000, she was featured in OT Practice her for her advocacy efforts. For more than a decade, she has served on the Washington Occupational Therapy Association legislative committee.  She has built a reputation in legislative circles as a skilled negotiator, someone who talks and educates in a respectful way and is always looking for “win-win” solutions.

Early in her career, Racicot saw a need for school occupational therapists to get service credit for non-school experience. After 15 years of advocacy, in 2007, a new law was passed allowing up to two years of service credit for Washington State occupational therapists. Racicot has also had a hand in bills relating to scope of practice.

Ms. Racicot is committed to being a lifelong learner and sharing her knowledge. In 2009, she earned her MS in Occupational Therapy from San Jose State.  Looking forward, she hopes to continue working for international system change and to use her occupational therapy skills to empower people in developing countries.


Alumni of the Year 2015:
Roger Ideishi (BS ’84)

Occupational therapist from University of Washington works with art and children with disabilitiesIdeishi was planning to major in special education at the University of California – Los Angeles, but changed  schools and his major after learning about occupational therapy while volunteering at an equestrian center. His first occupational therapy positions after graduation were in adult neurological and geriatric rehabilitation settings in California and New York. But Ideishi wanted to find a way to address broader societal issues and he returned to school to study law  and health administration.

Ideishi found his niche in occupational therapy, striving to make community experiences enjoyable for children whose learning, sensory, and social disabilities might otherwise have prevented them from participating. As the Program Director of Occupational Therapy at Temple University in Philadelphia, Ideishi works with several regional organizations – including the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Andy Warhol Museum-  to develop sensory guidebooks and sensory-friendly programming, such as theater performances with reduced visual and auditory effects.

Ideishi believes occupational therapy is about living life, constructing a meaningful pattern in life, and exploring the daily human experience. “If I were to ask you ‘what do you do?’ you would likely highlight those [things] that you perceive as socially valuable, such as special talents,” Ideishi said. “We would rarely say, ‘I put on my socks, I make breakfast for my kids, I drive to work, I go to the grocery store, I read the Sunday newspaper’.”

“I think the beauty of occupational therapy is that we engage in the ordinary,” Ideishi said. “We often see people when they can’t do those ordinary activities that make up so much of what we do every day.Therefore, we need to value and cherish the ordinary, since those ordinary daily acts make each of us unique and truly extraordinary.”

While Ideishi has played many professional roles in his life, he sees himself first and foremost as a husband and a father. Some of his favorite ordinary acts include cooking dinner with his wife and making vanilla chai or cinnamon tea with his grown daughter.