A Leader in Service and Sports

Associate Chair and Entry-level Occupational Therapy Doctoral Program Director Jess Harney is inspiring her students and colleagues to make the world a healthier, more equitable place.
Jess Harney

Warmly described by her colleagues as “the glue that holds us all together,” Jess Harney is the Associate Chair and Entry-level Occupational Therapy Doctoral (OTD) program director for the Tufts Occupational Therapy Department. As such, she oversees curriculum development, hiring, admissions, budgeting, and marketing for the program, and has taught many of the courses offered. 

Harney’s professional background is in rehabilitative medicine and she served as the director of rehabilitative services at an outpatient rehabilitation provider prior to coming to Tufts. In addition to teaching and her management role at Tufts, Harney is the president of New England Disabled Sports, a nonprofit providing adaptive sport instruction to adults and children living with physical and cognitive disabilities. She is also an international paralympic classifier, working to assess athletes competing in paralympic alpine skiing and snowboarding. 

Harney grew up skiing with her family, which is where she first encountered adaptive sports. “My younger sister has a significant cognitive disability and with the help of adaptive sports instructors she was able to ski with us as a family,” says Harney. “I have a huge passion for adaptive sports and the innovation behind them. Being able to help people enhance their physical, mental, and spiritual health through athletics is so meaningful. It’s also an equity issue. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to participate in sports with their family and friends?”

Harney was introduced to occupational therapy when her sister was receiving services as a child. “OT has always been a part of my life,” she reflects. “I saw what a big difference OT made for my sister and I wanted to help others reach their highest functional capacity, so I decided to pursue this as a career and it’s been a really great fit. What I like best about occupational therapy is the holistic, client-centered focus. I love hearing about my clients’ hopes and dreams, and problem solving with them to achieve their goals.

Harney is currently a universal design learning fellow through the Tufts StAAR Center, where she is working with faculty across the University to incorporate flexibility into Tufts courses with the goal of increasing access for all learners, including those with disabilities and those from underrepresented groups. “I love sharing my knowledge,” she reflects. “I’ve had some amazing experiences with clients across a wide spectrum of diagnoses, and it’s so rewarding to share my toolbox with the next generation."

She is particularly proud of the structure of the Tufts occupational therapy curriculum, which is designed to help students hone their skills through a combination of classroom instruction, research opportunities, clinical experience, and hands-on fieldwork placements. “It’s wonderful to see our OT students towards the end of their time at Tufts just brimming with confidence because they’ve made it through our challenging curriculum and emerged as self-directed, creative professionals with the skills to provide a host of OT services,” she says.

“Tufts has a unique commitment to civic engagement and community-based practice,” Harney added. “Particularly in the past several years, the students who enter our program tend to be very focused on advocacy, policy, and making the world a better place. Being situated in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, we are well poised to help our students explore different emerging practice areas, while being grounded in the medical model.”

“It’s also important to emphasize how much we as faculty learn from our students,” she says. “Our students are so intelligent, innovative, and service-minded. They contribute so much to our OT classrooms and to the Tufts community as a whole.”