Spotlight on a Cap and Gown Member: Pathways to Firsts – Toni Zeiss’ Way

American Psychological Association, the largest organization of researchers, consultants, students, and clinical psychologists in the United States, awarded Antonette Marie Wood Zeiss, Stanford Class 1970, the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology Award at its annual meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii this August, 2013. Chosen for Cap and Gown, Dr. Zeiss became the first woman, first non-physician, and first psychologist to lead the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health policy office.

The pathway to so many future trail blazing firsts for Dr. Zeiss, Toni as she prefers to be called, may have had an early window opened in Eleanor Maccoby’s Introduction to Psychology course in the spring quarter of Toni’s freshman year. “I saw this amazing psychologist elegantly balancing work and family, and I knew I’d found a new exciting role model.”

But Toni was primed for this moment. She credits her mother and maternal grandmother for helping her appreciate that context matters. “I learned to find what you love to do from my maternal grandmother, Clara Crosby Wood, Stanford class of 1913. She was a Cap and Gown woman, biology major, and started graduate school, but circumstances – societal constraints and more altered her path. Social context matters and we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Toni grew up knowing her grandmother had regrets about not completing grad school, but circumstances make a difference. Toni’s family guided her to learn that “There should be no limits based on gender. When you ask yourself “What do I love to do? Try to not worry about ‘can I do this as a woman.’” Her mother came to UC Santa Cruz when it first opened. Starting in the cafeteria, her mom rapidly moved on into education and particularly an important role in the UCSC Extension courses program.

Grit and willingness to tackle new challenges gave her wonderful freedom, Toni explains. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There will be people there to help you learn what’s important when needed. I have made several missteps…and then asked myself, ‘How do I put the pieces together now?’ I try to make the best I can out of my failures. In fact, it was in one of my major missteps that led me to meet Bob, my husband. I had stayed at Stanford after graduation, for the wrong reasons, but because of that, he and I worked together in Walter Mischel’s research lab. The person you pick to marry is so important. From the beginning, Bob Zeiss saw us as a team. His view created a wide-open forum for me as a person. Of course the system that stifles women’s opportunities has to change as well, but we would ask ‘How can we do this?’ It became ‘How do we create a partnership – a pathway – that lets us both progress – together? How do we rear our daughter together? How do we grow as people…and as a couple?’ It really was and is a great partnership.”

Toni and Bob headed together to University of Oregon graduate school, to psychology internship in Louisiana, an academic career at Arizona State University, and a return to Stanford where Toni was a Visiting Assistant Professor in 1981-82. Bob began working at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, and Toni followed when her visiting year ended.

At the VA, Toni became leader of the Interdisciplinary Training Team in Geriatrics.  Serving veterans of all ages in an innovative program where Toni’s community team spirit, positive can-do attitude brought nurses, MD, pharmacists, physical therapists and social workers together – building friendships and avenues of communication for comprehensive patient care.  Toni’s embracing style and the 1996 G.S. Bush “President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health Report” flourished through Toni’s team building skills implementing recommendations at the VA.  “I loved what the VA was doing.”  She instrumentally expanded the VA strategic mental health services and in 2005, becoming the VA Deputy Chief Consultant in the Office of Mental Health Services developing VA policies and coordinating with offices across the nation.  How are VA treatment centers doing?  The wide range of encompassed aspects of mental health defined in the VA’s Uniform Mental Health Services Handbook included “essential components” of holistic coordinated care, around the clock service, with caregivers mindful of gender and culture.  Guided by a strong evidence based practice (EBP) foundation, Toni supported all levels in the VA caregiving team to ensure quality training, fidelity procedure implementation, and monitoring progress for post-traumatic stress (PTSD), depression, drug and alcohol, and schizophrenia.

Toni’s lifelong personal trajectory both reflect and perpetuate our Cap and Gown 1905 mission to:  a) increase communication and contact, b) undertake projects and sponsor events which support and enhance opportunities, c) create, mentor, and support (others), d) cooperate to achieve common goals.

Toni’s elegant path marked by many “Firsts,” as Dr. Maccoby first role modeled the possibility for a balanced life with family and career, included building friendships communities positively at every step.   When asked how she did it, Toni humbly defers that serendipity opened many doors for her and she just went on through because “I found ways to do what I love.”