Rosalia A. Kiss-Schwem's tenacity as an occupational therapy educator and practitioner embodied the goals of OT and emphasized the need for restoring an individual's independence.
In 1939, Kiss-Schwem earned bachelor's degrees in art education and occupational therapy from Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University, respectively. She later received a master's degree in counseling and guidance from Western Michigan University and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan.
Early in her career, from about 1947 to 1952, Kiss-Schwem worked as an OT for the Michigan Society of Crippled Children and Adults and provided home service throughout the rural upper peninsula. "She was ahead of her time," says stepson, Marvin Schwem. "She was an outstanding woman, traveling the upper peninsula alone to work with disabled people during and after the war. It's an indication of the type of woman she was—strong-willed and caring."
Her forward thinking would later profoundly impact the lives of students as well.
Kiss-Schwem joined the WMU faculty in 1952. As a professor, her concern with meeting human needs extended far beyond traditional OT practices. Former student Barbara Chandler remembers Kiss-Schwem explaining how she taught a farmer how to transfer easily from his tractor to his wheelchair by driving the vehicle into a large hole dug next to his barn. This act demonstrated to Chandler "the potential and possibility of OT and the human spirit."
Kiss-Schwem served as chair of WMU's occupational therapy department from 1968 until her retirement in 1971. In that role, she revamped the curriculum, launched courses to support other areas of study and introduced activities for children as well as courses such as child development and developmental assessment. Throughout her tenure she continued to upgrade the OT program to stay abreast of developments in other schools associated with large medical centers.
In 2007, family and friends created the Rosalia A. Kiss-Schwem Occupational Therapy Faculty Endowment Improvement Fund to memorialize her, to honor her work as a teacher and outstanding occupational therapist, and to remember her character as a strong and caring human being.