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The Division of Physical Therapy, located within the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Health Sciences, hosted its first Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Exploratory Day on April 22nd  in Bondurant Hall. The full-day event aimed to extend the program’s reach to potential applicants and students from groups who are underrepresented within the physical therapy profession, first-generation college students, and those interested in working in underserved or rural areas of North Carolina.

Building a Representative PT Workforce

According to assistant professor Dr. Deidra Charity, recent data from Sheps Health Workforce NC indicates that underrepresented minorities make up 6% of the physical therapist workforce in North Carolina, whereas recent U.S. Census data indicates that 37% of North Carolina’s population is made up of underrepresented minorities.* Lack of diversity in the healthcare workforce has important implications for the health of our state as diversity in health care helps improve patient access, reduces health disparities and leads to better health.

Dr. Lynda Woodruff was an innovator in the profession and was the first African American to join the faculty in the Division of Physical Therapy at UNC in 1974. “In the inaugural Lynda D. Woodruff Lecture on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in Physical Therapy delivered by Gregory Hicks, PT, PhD, FAPTA, Dr. Hicks identified several reasons why underrepresented persons were not entering the profession, including: ‘limited exposure to the profession; unequal preparation for graduate education (admissions and matriculation); and lack of coordinated focus on recruitment of underrepresented students,’” said Charity. “The UNC-Chapel Hill DPT Exploratory Day was a coordinated effort between UNC-CH DPT students and faculty to address these, and other factors, that contribute to the lack of diversity within the physical therapy profession.”

The School of Medicine offers Carolina First Look and Carolina Second Look programs, along with others that support medical students and residents including those from historically underrepresented backgrounds and those with an interest in working in rural or underserved communities. In the past, the UNC-CH Division of Physical Therapy has hosted open houses with the most recent one being in 2014. The UNC-CH DPT Exploratory Day has expanded on the opportunity to introduce the program to a diverse group of potential students and future healthcare professionals in alignment with the UNC School of Medicine mission.

An Immersive and Informative Experience for Participants

Attendees first received a welcome and introduction to the UNC-CH DPT program from Charity, student and DEI Leader Kyrsten Le, and professor Dr. Debby Givens. From there, a panel of five faculty answered questions about the DPT program, their careers, and their experiences at UNC-CH.

Following the introductory sessions, attendees participated in lab experiences led by Division of Physical Therapy faculty. Assistant professor Dr. Jessica Cassidy showcased her Plasticity Lab, which uses multi-modal neuroimaging to study brain-behavior relationships during rehabilitation across the lifespan. Assistant professor Dr. Bria Dunn shared how electrical stimulation is utilized to facilitate neuromuscular activation to optimize muscle strength and performance. Physical therapy students also assisted Dr. Dunn with the lab simulation. Additionally, associate professor Dr. Michael Lewek showcased his Interdisciplinary Human Movement Science Lab, in which several different projects are currently in progress to improve mobility through restoration of walking ability for those with neurological disorders.

Attendees experienced the lab settings first-hand and were able to participate in example lab scenarios during their time with Drs. Cassidy, Dunn and Lewek.

Student perspectives on the DPT program were a crucial element to UNC-CH DPT Exploratory Day as they allowed attendees to hear from current students with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Attendees were joined by current DPT students for lunch and a student panel, which prompted discussion about the rigors of physical therapy school, details related to clinical education, school-life balance, and their experience as students in the UNC-CH physical therapy program.

Finally, attendees heard once more from faculty and students as they explained the application and admissions process for the UNC-CH DPT program. Participants heard from Dr. Deidra Charity and Dr. Laurie Ray about admissions requirements, tips for obtaining quality letters of recommendation, advice for essays and interviews, and other details related to the application process. Current second-year physical therapy students, Kyrsten Le and Justin Wilson, also provided advice and strategies to help participants develop a competitive application. Graduate-level program admissions can be daunting, but the presentations gave attendees a roadmap for where to begin and how to navigate the process successfully.

“Exploratory Day was an extremely successful event that allowed for students to experience genuine interactions with current PT students and faculty to be provided with the resources to navigate graduate school admissions,” said Le. “I have gotten many personal notes from participants about how valuable the experience was, and it has made me so grateful to be part of a program that has supports diversity in our profession. I am excited to see the next generation of physical therapists that best serve a diverse patient population!”

“The UNC Exploratory Day was a great success, and I am so grateful for the UNC DPT faculty and my student peers for helping bring this idea to fruition,” said Wilson. “Having the opportunity to interact with those that attended and share our experiences and resources with prospective students interested in pursuing a graduate level education was incredibly fulfilling. Exploratory Day was a testament to our program’s commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion within our profession.”

Student and Faculty Commitment Bring New Ideas to Life

UNC-CH has a dedicated history of service and community engagement, and the UNC-CH DPT program is comprised of service-oriented students and leaders who have a passion for advancing the physical therapy profession.

“Kyrsten Le and Justin Wilson, second-year physical therapy students, and I came together with a shared interest in developing an outreach program for prospective applicants,” said Charity. “The UNC-CH DPT Exploratory Day on April 22 was the culmination of over a year of brainstorming, planning, intentional work, and spreading word about the event. We applied for and were awarded a School of Medicine DEI Mini Grant to help support the program and we are grateful for additional support from the Division of Physical Therapy and Department of Health Sciences.”

“The event was a great success and it was so rewarding to hear from Exploratory Day participants at the end of the day and in the weeks after the event about how much they appreciated the event, how helpful the information and personal engagement was, and their positive regard for UNC-CH as a choice for their graduate studies,” said Charity. “The UNC-CH DPT Exploratory Day was truly a collaborative effort and would not have been possible without the support of UNC-CH faculty, students, and staff.”

Dr. Stephen Hooper, Associate Dean of Medicine and Chair of the Department of Health Sciences, added, “The success of this inaugural Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Exploratory Day to address the needs of the PT profession, in line with the mission of the School of Medicine, was indeed gratifying. It is an important step toward serving the needs of our state constituents and advancing the awareness of our excellent PT program to prospective students. I am excited for our future and congratulate all involved.”



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