Student Profile - Jenn Barry

OT student doing research with child
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Student Profile: Jenn Barry


As a youth, volunteering in soup kitchens was a regular activity in Jenn Barry’s family life.

Barry retained the sense of commitment to helping others that her parents instilled in her as she grew up, but she personalized it by getting involved in more progressive causes.

Living in the Washington, D.C. region opened her eyes to a plethora of protest opportunities, especially at the outbreak of the Gulf War.

As an OT student at UW, Barry has participated in, if not organized or led, a number of outreach opportunities – and then some.

“I’m one of those people that can’t really say ‘No’ to things,” said Barry, explaining that she has been making up for lost time during her previous graduate degree program.

Barry regretted never making the most of her previous grad school experience in social work. She concentrated on her studies and finishing her degree requirements, but didn’t get involved outside the classroom.

“This time, I’ve gone the other direction and every opportunity that comes up I’ve been really grabbing hold of it and taking a chance on doing lots of different things,” Barry said. “I want to make sure I’m taking every opportunity to have an amazing experience – which I did.”

Barry’s career path toward community-based therapy began in her social work program where she focused on community-based social justice because the program lacked the evidenced-based tools that she wanted. After getting her MSW, she sought out community organizing and non-profit work.

Barry spent time all over the country but she eventually landed in Madison, where she canvassed in support of environmental, human rights and other progressive issues; worked for a stretch in a more stable position at CUNA Mutual; and then returned to community service work at Head Start.

There, Barry worked with a Hmong child who was very bright but had a sensory processing disorder that caused him to have problems with other children and teachers.

An OT came in to work with the child and made “a world of difference” in the life of the child and the rest of his family.

Barry was impressed with that power – “I was like, who is this?”

She was attracted to the evidence-based and person-centered tools of occupational therapy – approaches that she felt lacking in her social work training.

“There’s so much diversity in (OT),” she said. “For someone like me, being able to do lots of different things within a field without having to go back to school again is going to be really beneficial.”

At UW-Madison, she played a lead role in organizing the Kronenberg occupational justice event; she led a charity effort to send supplies and care packages to OTs serving in Afghanistan; she served as the program’s delegate for the student leadership assembly at AOTA; and she participated in a 60-mile walk for breast cancer research and raised $10,000.

“While I was doing all this, I worked at American Family Children’s Hospital as a volunteer and worked at two places for people with cancer – so I’m a little crazy,” she said.

Even though she came up with a lot of those ideas, she doesn’t do it all on her own – she gets her peers involved and helps them take the lead.

“I think that my special talent is putting people together who are interested in doing something,” she said. “Everybody’s interested in getting involved in these things but they just don’t have the time or the knowledge to get the organizational stuff rolling. So, a lot of times, I’m the one who puts the ball out there and says ‘Anyone want to play ball?’.”

She is now helping to gather resources for students to visit a Peruvian orphanage for children with disabilities and hopes to make the connection a lasting one.

“I believe that it’s my obligation to give back,” she said. “I’ve always been a big volunteer to begin with.”

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