GAINESVILLE – After building a brand-new Department of Physical Therapy three years ago, Brenau University will confer degrees to its first Doctors of Physical Therapy on Saturday, May 5.
Dr. Kathye Light, chair of the Brenau physical therapy department, called the accomplishment “nothing short of fabulous.”
“It’s monumental,” she said. “It was a very hard thing to do. We had obstacles and challenges, and all sorts of things to do in order to keep moving it forward. So this feels huge.”
The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education granted candidacy for accreditation in 2014 to the doctoral degree program that began in May 2015. The department will hear this month if it has received temporary accreditation, according to Light. Full accreditation will follow, depending on the results of the students’ board exams.
Light said she feels confident about the education and preparation the students received for the boards, including a full two-day review course on the exams themselves.
“They are extraordinarily well prepared to take the exam,” said Dr. Heather Ross, associate professor of physical therapy. “Furthermore, I am 100 percent confident in their abilities to get out and be excellent physical therapists. We had encouraging feedback from clinical instructors during the last clinical placements this semester telling us how prepared they are. I had one student whose clinical instructor said she was even better prepared than some of the entry-level PTs they had just hired.”
Jason Thelen, doctor of physical therapy candidate from Athens, Georgia, said he feels “extremely well prepared” for the field.
“I can say confidently that going through this program has prepared me for the real world and this work,” he said. “We had feedback from our instructors in our clinical rotations that speaks for itself. That’s a testament to not just us students, but the faculty and staff. I’m just excited to hear back from everyone after we’re done with the boards to hear how everything is going.”
As founding faculty, Light and academic coordinator Dr. Mary Thigpen accepted the challenge to build a new program for a maximum of 120 doctoral candidates that, from day one, would provide nationally excellent physical therapy education.
That process included collaborating with health care entities such as Northeast Georgia Health System to give students more hands-on training opportunities. In 2016, the university followed with a pro-bono clinical setting in the Brenau Downtown Center – a functioning, open-to-the-public operation that enables doctoral candidates to work directly with patients under the supervision of licensed faculty.
Dr. Gale Starich, dean of the Ivester College of Health Sciences, did a market study prior to the opening of the program that indicated Brenau could and should support a physical therapy program.
“Evidence shows we’re a high-demand program with very good job opportunities,” Ross said. “It’s a stable career choice, and these students will have no problem finding sustainable work in our region. But another reason we feel certain this is a good career choice is it allows you to take science and help people with it. It’s a fulfilling and rewarding career.”
Sinces its inception, the Brenau program has attracted hundreds of applicants from around the country for each cohort’s 40 slots. For the school’s fourth cohort, which starts work shortly after the first group graduates, there were 527 applications.
The real key to the program, however, has always been recruiting top students from the applicant pool. The 37 members of the class of 2018 had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.47 with disciplines ranging from behavior neuroscience and exercise science to business administration and cross-cultural studies.
The cohort includes 22 women and 15 men, with an average age of 28. They hail from nine states across the country and from a variety of undergraduate universities.
Hillary Wood, DPT candidate from Martin, Georgia, said it meant a great deal to her to be part of the inaugural class.
“It is awesome to be the first,” she said. “It has just been such a great thing to be part of this. More than that, we are here, we did it, and now we get to be doctors. I’m looking forward to growing the profession in this area and bringing more awareness to the benefits of physical therapy.”
Russell Jones, a DPT candidate from Atlanta, called it “a dream in the making.”
“I have wanted this for a long, long time,” he said.
According to Melissa Tavilla, operations manager and admissions advisor for the physical therapy department, the majority of these students are former athletes.
“Primarily, their interest in PT was due to their personal experience with physical therapy for their own injuries,” she said. “For many others, it was a close family member that had rehabilitation of some type.”
Alyson Logan, DPT candidate from Dacula, Georgia, first wanted to be a physical therapist in eighth grade.
“I danced and had some knee injuries and had to go through it myself,” she said. “I’ve loved it ever since.”
The stereotype of graduate students living unhealthy lifestyles based on macaroni and cheese or microwavable ramen noodles does not apply to this cohort, said Tavilla.
“Most of our students are very physically active and participate in recreational sports, and they utilize the gym in the downtown center between classes and in the evenings,” she added. “Twenty-four PT students, from all three cohorts, are on a Hall County rec softball team. They won the championship last year, and the trophy is on display in the department.”
Ross said she was “a little choked up” to see these 37 degree candidates reach commencement.
“My first day of work was their first day of school,” she said. “I started this journey with them, so it’s such an accomplishment to start with them and see them finish. I’m sad to see them go. It’s bittersweet, but it is incredible.”