Brave in the Attempt

By Christine Cox | Fall 2016

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When it comes to helping others, Janet O’Tousa (MBA ’88) dives in wholeheartedly.

Janet O’Tousa’s enthusiasm is so radiant, swimmers must feel it under water. Her warm, husky cheering: “Go! Go! You can do it! You can do it!” Her colorful demonstrations of swim techniques at the pool’s edge. And her trademark never-ending smile, the kind that involves every inch of her face.

You couldn’t ask for a more perfect person to coach a Special Olympics swim team. Or to guide vulnerable clients with federal income taxes. Or to introduce nervous business students to the world of accounting.

Funny thing is, O’Tousa (MBA ’88), an accountancy associate teaching professor, wasn’t planning for any of those roles. Instead, she dove into them unflinchingly on a hunch that she might have something to offer. And countless lives are better for it.

Q: You started your career as a scientist. What was that like?

A: I earned a biology degree from University of California, Irvine, with a focus on ecology. Afterward, a professor hired me to study intertidal sites. The field work was a blast. We collected samples up and down the California coast, including many of the Channel Islands. Low tide was sometimes at 3 in the morning, so we’d be out there with our miner’s caps, gathering algae, crustaceans and other species. We wanted to see which populations existed in pristine sites and compare them with sites where an oil spill had occurred.

Q: How did you end up working for the IRS?

A: My husband (Notre Dame biologist Joseph O’Tousa) did his post-doctorate at Purdue University. When we moved to West Lafayette, I wanted a change in my career pursuits. I went through the classifieds, and the Internal Revenue Service was hiring taxpayer education representatives. I got the job and loved advocating for taxpayers. I answered questions, did research and was responsible for teaching and coordinating volunteers in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.

Q: How did you become a business professor?

A: When my husband was hired at Notre Dame, I took the basic finance course with a classroom full of sophomores. My professor told me, “You need to get an MBA.” So with a 1-year-old son, I went back to school! My goal was to teach in the College, but I was advised this was not a typical career path. My accounting and finance courses were taught by the respective department chairs for each, and I did well in both classes. I came away with a job offer after I graduated in May 1988. I taught as an adjunct when my sons were young and then moved to full-time teaching faculty in 2001.

Q: You’re known for being passionate about teaching. How do you stay excited about it?

A: I try to frame lectures in an interesting and exciting way, and my enthusiasm rating is always one of my highest from student evaluations. Every summer I take a Kaneb reading group to learn different methods to support all students: How do I challenge some and not lose those who struggle? I change my course packet every year and try new approaches every semester. Teaching is always new and exciting, and I feel like I’ve got something to offer.

Q: How did you get involved with Special Olympics?

A: When Notre Dame hosted the International Special Olympics in 1987, I volunteered and loved it. I ended up as a swim coach in 2001, after I happened to meet another coach at a local pool.

The only thing I knew about coaching swimming was from sitting through my son’s practices when he was on a swim team. While we work on stroke technique with Special Olympics, our practices are also about endurance, encouragement and lifelong fitness. We have a number of student volunteers who work with our athletes, and that is always a wonderful relationship to watch develop.

The whole Special Olympics experience is amazing — from our practices to local “fun” meets to the state games in Terre Haute. I just can’t say enough about it. And the Special Olympics oath just touches my heart every time: “Let me win. And if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”