Three years ago, 14 young adults began their studies toward Marist College’s Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, the College’s first doctoral program. In December 2020, they completed their journey. This past spring, prior to returning to campus for their commencement in May, several of the graduates looked back fondly on how Marist’s DPT program has launched their young careers.
Established in the Allied Health Building across Route 9 from Marist’s main campus, the program is designed to prepare students for the National Physical Therapy Examination and for successful careers as doctors of physical therapy.
Inaugural DPT graduates credit Claudia Fenderson, PT, EdD, the program’s director, for selling them on the brand-new program. “I had a lot of faith in Dr. Fenderson’s reputation because she had been a program director at a different college for a number of years,” said graduate Katherine Whitman.
A hugely impactful part of the program was its faculty, always available to help students with anything and offer experience from varied backgrounds. Students stay with the same cohort throughout the program, and all of their courses are taught by the program faculty, who get to know the students extremely well. In addition to traditional lectures, students and faculty engage in hands-on experiences in multiple lab courses. Additionally, students have a faculty advisor who assists them during their three-year tenure.
“The close interaction between faculty and students allows for support of the students academically, professionally, and emotionally,” said Fenderson.
Having such a small cohort allowed the students more access to professors, and they took advantage of it. The faculty also brought in professionals from the area to speak with students and sometimes provide guidance in the lab.
The program uses a variety of labs to provide students experience with the same equipment they will use in the field. It also incorporates volunteer work into its 115-credit curriculum.
The mix of lab and volunteer service work provided a well-rounded pathway to becoming a physical therapist. Yara Adely was a big fan of the service-hours requirement because “it really put you in the community, advocating for all your future clientele in a sense…It just makes you feel like you’re making a difference.” The program provided several ways to accrue those hours. Adely mentioned fundraising walks for Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease and filling backpacks with school supplies for kids in the area. Madison Ward was one of four students to be selected for a medical mission trip to Ecuador in February of 2020. The week-long trip placed the students in hospitals to provide physical therapy services, mostly to children.
The method of establishing professional clinical rotations was beneficial, too. Students are required to have four full-time clinical rotations, each of which features working in the field in a different way. At Marist, Whitman explained, students integrated their clinical work with their classroom instruction, whereas other programs have all clinical work at the end of their programs. Students were also able to choose their clinical sites themselves. The only requirement was that they had to work in at least one hospital setting and one outpatient setting. “Some schools choose your rotations for you and I’m so glad Marist lets you participate in the process,” Whitman said.
Spending so much time as a cohort allowed students to form close relationships. Going through the same stressful classes and studying together created a unique and tight bond. They still keep in touch with one another and will all attend a wedding for one of their DPT classmates this summer. “I think that’s what helped us get through, too. We had the support of each other,” Ward said.
The students weren’t shy about offering their input, Fenderson said, which was valuable in shaping the program. “The first cohort understood that their feedback was valued and necessary as it was used to inform the decision-making process about many areas of the program including the curriculum, teaching methodology, and the need for additional resources. When they engaged in full-time clinical experiences, the students provided information regarding their perceptions of strengths of the program and areas needing improvement. This input all factored into the success of the program.”
In 2020 the program was granted accreditation for five years by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Five-year accreditation is the maximum period granted to a new DPT program.
Some of the highlights of the past three years, said Fenderson, was observing the students “as they advanced to becoming such amazing, caring professionals, seeing their dedication to service of the local and global communities, watching their passion for helping patients evolve and flourish, and of course, developing close connections with these remarkable graduates.” Having 100 percent of the students pass the National Physical Therapy Exam was also a high point, she added.
Although the cohort had almost completed the program when the coronavirus hit, the pandemic did have some implications for their studies. Clinical rotations were thrown off-kilter and students had to finish most of their classes online, which is extremely difficult for a profession and course of study that’s so hands-on. “The clinical experience is an invaluable part of the curriculum. The purpose of clinicals are not only for students to demonstrate the skills they have learned, but to continue their education in ways we can not simulate in the classroom. Students return after each rotation more confident in their skills and better able to absorb the new material they are taught. As a clinician and an educator, this is very exciting to observe,” shared Julie Fineman, PT, EdD, the program’s Director of Clinical Education.
The pandemic also affected the job market. Ward said that jobs she was eyeing in the Hudson Valley began offering only part-time or per-diem work or reduced work time and/or salaries.
Still, opportunities were out there. Whitman is a physical therapist at Moriarty Physical Therapy in nearby Lagrangeville, NY. Adely works in the outpatient department of Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, NY, where she worked per diem as a DPT student. Ward is a physical therapist at Professional Physical Therapy on Long Island, NY, and works part-time for Healthie as a marketing associate.
Fenderson is proud of the inaugural class. “Witnessing their graduation marks the end of their three-year journey,” she said. “It is a milestone for the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program but also one for Marist, as this is its first doctoral offering. For the DPT Program, this is the culmination of a six-year journey the spans the demonstration of the need for the program, building support from the community, gaining state approval, recruiting faculty, staff, and students, and finally gaining full national accreditation. This moment is the result of the unwavering dedication and commitment of the faculty and so many at the College.
“We were fortunate to have accepted and graduated an extremely talented cohort of students who are making important contributions to our profession and enriching the lives of their patients.”
Being the first group of students to take on the program, as well as the first to earn doctoral degrees from Marist, is something the graduates hang their hats on, especially because everyone in the original cohort made it all the way through.
“It really makes my heart happy,” Adely said, “knowing that we were able to shape the program to what it is today.”