Years in the Making, USM’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program—a Cornerstone of the University’s Growing Health Care Focus—is Officially Underway
For the University of Saint Mary, the future is here.
It arrived in jet black scrubs in early June, eagerly packing into the sleek new Berchmans Lecture Hall for registration, posing for historic class pictures, and filing into intensive new classes.
The 37 members of USM’s inaugural Doctor of Physical Therapy class are the future of the university. They’re a high caliber group, full of youthful energy—big dreamers with big plans and a desire to serve their fellow man at their moments of great need.
Their arrival is a triumph, both to the students as they continue their personal journeys to enter a high-demand and booming profession, and to the university as a whole.
USM is in the midst of a considerable effort to establish itself as a prominent player in health care education. Newly launched programs include the accelerated nursing path—which allows students to gain their BSN in 12 months and a health information management offering that taps into another high demand field. On the horizon are a physician assistant program and more advanced nursing degrees. Our traditional nursing program continues to be full.
At the forefront sits the DPT, the university’s first doctorate.
This first DPT class is significant, both for its numbers—in its first year, the university very nearly hit its40-student cap—and as the culmination of herculean efforts.
It started with the hiring of expert faculty, like DPT Program Director Dr. Mark Horacek, in 2009. Drs. Horacek and Jamie Dehan guided the program to candidacy status as it seeks accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education of the American Physical Therapy Assocation. If all goes to plan, the DPT program will earn accreditation when this first-ever class is ready to graduate in 2015.
“It’s been a great experience for all of us,” Dr. Horacek said. “It’s been three years since we started forming this program, and having these students start has been very gratifying… The students have been very enthusiastic to be here. They’re finally here, and we’re now working with them to realize both their goals, and the program’s goals.”
‘IT SEEMED PRETTY SPECIAL’
For the members of USM’s first DPT class, the goal couldn’t be any clearer: become a practicing physical therapist.
“The relationship we’ll be able to develop with the patients is amazing,” says Peter Trujillo, of Kansas City, Mo. As physical therapists, “that’s what distinguishes us, it’s our ability to connect. It’s not just a job. It’s not a career. It’s a calling.”
Ask them why they’re pursuing careers in physical therapy, and the members of the university’s first DPT class will tell you about their desire to help people, to motivate patients through challenging and rigorous times, to serve those in need.
Several said they recognized that same commitment to service in the Saint Mary mission. It’s part of the reason they came here.
“A lot of the values that the university holds up line up with our personal and moral values,” said student Stephanie Conti. “A huge part of physical therapy for me is that you’re serving the needs of somebody else, and Saint Mary puts more emphasis on that than a lot of the other schools I looked at… It gives you a good feeling to know that you’re really helping somebody.”
So far, students say they’re excited about how classes are going, how the program is rounding out, and about getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, of a significant new effort.
"There’s something about being the first class,” said Amer Ghaisarnia, of Olathe, Kan. “Being part of the inaugural class seemed pretty special.”
Adds Peter: “there’s a lot of energy around us being the first class… This is a really good school, and there’s a whole lot of excitement about the health care focus here and where it’s all going.”
For the students, one major positive so far has been the university’s friendly and knowledgeable faculty.
“They want us to learn,” said Jennifer Hutchins, of Coffeyville, Kan. “If we need help or have a question, they’re really open to us. That’s one of the biggest differences, coming from a larger university…
“The faculty has an open door policy. They want us to learn, and we actually all help each other.”
Megan Clopton, of Emporia, Kan., praised the congenial atmosphere created by the faculty.
“They’re not just our professors. They’re our friends, and they’re there for us to talk to,” she said. “They ask us to come see them.”
In fact, for several of the students, it was the friendly and personable approach that got them here in the first place.
“At first I didn’t really consider (Saint Mary) when I got the flyer, but I decided to just call Dr. Dehan,” Megan said. “She was so personable and so helpful that I decided, ‘well, I’m going to do this.’”
‘CREATING SOMETHING OF VALUE’
As far as the faculty is concerned, the excitement is just as strong. And for the faculty, the focus right now is very much on the students.
“Right now, we want to make sure all of our students get through the first semester well,” said Dr. Horacek, the program director. “We’ll finish this first semester and kind of analyze where we are in terms of their progress and our ability to help them.”
The immediate next steps: ready for future semesters, and bolster the faculty. A fifth faculty member should be hired shortly, and the program should eventually boast 10 core faculty members, he said. Also on the horizon: the serious task of clinical placements.
As for the new class, the faculty’s early assessment is strong.
“I’m very satisfied with the students’ performances so far,” said Dr. Anand Shetty, director of program assessment for the USM DPT. “Our students are working very hard to reach their goals and the faculty are there to help them matriculate successfully and become good physical therapists.”
The students, they say are doing well adjusting to the far more rigorous demands of graduate-level education.
“They’re progressing very well,” said Dr. Jamie Dehan, director of clinical education. “They were initially very shocked about how quickly we get into material that is very useful and practical… on the first day of class, they were learning things that they’ll be using for the rest of their career. They’ve adapted very well to this, and they continue to learn.”
Seeing the students grow and develop is a big part of what keeps the faculty interested.
“It’s exciting to see students go from this undergraduate level of performance and thinking to a graduate level, and then transition to being professionals and eventually getting a license to practice,” said Dr. Bryan Bond. “It’s exciting to see that growth.”
Above all, they’re as excited for the future as the students, and proud of the work that went into building the future of the university.
“It’s exciting to know that we’re going to have faculty and students as a collective community and know that both groups are going to grow over the next few years,” Dr. Horacek said. “And as the students grow, we’re going to grow too as a faculty…
“When you start a new DPT program, there are risks involved, and from the start, you don’t know necessarily how every element is going to fall together,” he added. “It was an educational process for everyone and the university’s responded well to what we need.”
What would it take for the faculty to consider their efforts a success?
“For me, success would be, no. 1, that the students are successful, that they graduate from an accredited school and that we have a 100 percent pass rate on the boards, that they’re able to get jobs and that they perform well after they get those jobs…
“The school will end up being successful because if we have students that are successful and faculty that are successful. If we all work together, it means we’re having fun essentially while we’re creating something of value.”