After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2015, Elissa Lee began studying occupational therapy at USC, and researching chronic care management in medically underserved populations at the Lifestyle Redesign for Chronic Conditions lab. For her work, she was named a Student Innovator by the Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Science.
Elissa writes for the Center for Health Journalism, and covers mental health and social good at Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. Prior to graduate school, she served as program coordinator for the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative, a national campaign promoting the importance of early brain and language development in children ages 0–5.
Elissa spent her childhood in Austin, Texas, and her adolescence in Taipei, Taiwan. She is currently completing a clinical rotation in Portland, focused on program development in pediatric primary care. Outside of work, she enjoys dancing, reading, hiking, exercising, and finding new places to eat.
Can you describe your journey from being a student of psychology, disability studies, and dance to pursuing a career in writing and occupational therapy?
I always knew I wanted to help people, and to write. I came to occupational therapy because of my grandmother, whose stroke in 2001 led us to move from Texas to Taiwan. Every Saturday, I would accompany her to the rehabilitation clinic, where she would receive physical, occupational, and speech therapy services. We tried a few different clinics, but ultimately settled on one where the clinic really went out of their way to motivate their patients. The occupational therapists would incorporate my grandmother’s love of drawing into their fine motor treatments, the physical therapists found her favorite songs and sang along with her as she practiced her daily walk, up until her last day. I wanted to be part of that magic.
Because I was set on OT early on, outside of prerequisites, I took anything that sounded interesting to me—from dance to history to disability studies—and that, coupled with the overall Berkeley experience, inspired me to learn to make positive change not just at a individual level, but also at a systems level. Writing is just one way that I’ve been trying to better understand our fragmented healthcare system.
How has your background in dance informed your work as a writer and an occupational therapist?
Moving between nations and cultures at an early age, dance was one way that I could communicate with others despite language differences. I strongly believe that communication, and other elements that come with performing and organizing performance—event coordination, time management, self-regulation, discipline, the management of people and bodies in space—translate well into different fields. I still attribute my Excel proficiency from leading a 100-person beginner dance team my senior year. My last few supervisors have consistently noted my unique ability for nonverbal communication, which has definitely been an asset in patient care and which I believe dance has had a huge role in shaping. Oftentimes, you dance as an individual and as a collective, and navigating between these mediums has been immensely valuable to my growth as a writer and as a healthcare provider.
How did Dance the Bay, the student service group, come about? What did you learn from the experience?
Dance the Bay really came from realizing that we have all these spaces on campus—from TDPS to the Berkeley Dance Community—to dance together, and wanting to bridge that gap for communities who may not have access to the same resources. Our mission is to uplift community through dance, and we try to share in Alvin Ailey’s notion: dance came from the people and always should be given back to the people. Through Dance the Bay, we hope to honor that movement and create a space for people to express themselves creatively through movement. It’s a dance that is not limited to a studio or a technique or a socioeconomic status. It’s a dance that gets people to communicate with one another, that teaches life lessons, that gets everyone moving—it’s a dance that reflects how we want life to be.
We had partnerships that allowed us to do this work, with preschool and afterschool programs, senior affordable housing and nursing homes, homeless shelters and women’s groups, and more. But it really started at BAHIA with Martha, their wonderful education program director, who somehow trusted two college kids to teach a movement class to preschool-aged children. And it’s only blossomed since.
Can you share a favorite memory from TDPS?
Most of my memories with TDPS are joyful—I loved visiting with Lisa (Wymore) at her office hours and brainstorming the birth of Dance the Bay, learning from Paloma McGregor (from Urban Bush Women), working with Luna Dance Institute to create Dance the Bay trainings, discussions in performance studies with Prof. (Catherine) Cole, and “field trips” with classmates to Zellerbach Hall to see shows. There are too many—it’s hard to choose. Oh, and all of the classes with Amara (Tabor Smith) in the afternoon light of the Bancroft Dance Studio. My sister still tells me about them, and it makes me want to go back.
Do you have any advice for current students who might want to pursue a career outside of the performing arts?
Spend some time finding what your values are—what is most important to you. For me, no matter what I do, I always want my life to reflect my four core values—family first, then to be of service and make the world a better place; be financially in a good place; and be able to innovate and channel creativity in some way.
Then talk to people, ask questions, shadow them, learn more. Take classes you might find interesting. Know some things are stepping stones.
What’s equally important is to have time to yourself (schedule it if you must) to perform self-care and to reflect back on your values, and whether what you are doing aligns with that. Sometimes I found myself auditioning for dance teams, or vying after a certain internship—but when I later reflected back on it, it was really because everyone else was doing it.
What's next for you after graduation?
I will be completing a clinical doctorate, working on delivering an evidence-based occupational therapy intervention via telehealth for young adults with Type 1 diabetes, and TA’ing a course on food policy, politics, and practices. Of course, I’ll still be writing, daydreaming ways to make the world better, and dancing.