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The New Faces of Physical Therapy

Emory Physical Therapy Students and Alumni Work to Enhance Diversity in the Profession

By Kevin Bloye | Photography By Stephen Nowland

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(from L to R) Jynelle Jarvis 18DPT, DeAndrea Bullock 13DPT, Remi Onifade 13DPT and Nathalie Angel 18DPT pledged to work together to strengthen the Division of Physical Therapy’s diversity efforts.

While minorities in the U.S. continue to make slow but steady gains in filling key health care workforce positions such as physicians and nurses, physical therapy continues to lag way behind in diversity.

African Americans currently represent more than 13 percent of the U.S. population but in 2017 accounted for only 5.3 percent of licensed physical therapists in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On a similar note, Hispanics and Latinos comprise about 18 percent of the U.S. population but a mere 5 percent of the roughly 258,000 physical therapists nationwide. Despite Emory University’s worldwide reputation for creating a learning environment that values diversity and inclusion, the school’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) 2018 graduating class tracked closely with national numbers in terms of diversity underscoring the difficulty that programs nationwide have had in attracting minorities to the physical therapy profession.

Sara Pullen, who is an associate professor in the Emory DPT program and is mixed race—half African American and half Caucasian—says you don’t need statistics to recognize the disparities.

“When you go to the American Physical Therapy Association Conference, it is not diverse,” says Pullen. “If you go to a conference for physicians or nurses, it is much more diverse. That’s a real problem.”

The APTA House of Delegates agreed and approved a motion last summer that called for the association to “identify and begin to implement best practice strategies to advance diversity and inclusion within the profession of physical therapy” by June 2018.

For 2013 Emory DPT grad Remi Onifade, an African American who is the clinical director for a BenchMark Physical Therapy practice in Ellenwood, Ga., the changes are overdue. She remembers how she felt when she started her coursework at Emory in 2010.

“You look around, you say, ‘Oh wow, I’m one of only a few minorities that are here. How am I to present myself? Can I be me? Do I have to work harder to be an equal?’” recalls Onifade.

In early 2018, a group of minority Emory DPT students, who knew exactly how Onifade felt, decided to do something about it. While the results of their efforts may not be fully realized for years to come, it is evident that the campaign for greater diversity within both the division and profession is now in full force.

An Issue ‘Really Getting Traction’

With graduation in sight, it would have been easy to run to the finish line and let other students create further dialogue on the issue of diversity within the Emory DPT program. But last winter, a small group of third-year minority students convened other minority students to give everyone the opportunity to share their personal experiences.

Jynelle Jarvis, who is African American and a 2018 graduate of the program, attended the meeting and admitted that while she established several close friendships with her DPT classmates, in her mind, it wasn’t the same as the family-like bond that so many other students had.

“I was able to connect with people, but it was certainly not at the same level that many of my classmates had with each other because of how much they had in common,” Jarvis recalled.

The group agreed that, by working together, they could serve as a force for change and left the meeting with an action plan in place.

In January, they invited a group of Emory DPT minority alumni to join them in hosting a first-ever dinner reception for minority DPT applicants to coincide with Interview Day. The faculty-free event gave applicants the opportunity for a candid conversation with students and alumni about the challenges of being a minority in the program.

Nathalie Rosales 18DPT, who attended the reception, served as a teaching assistant this summer for two classes for first-year students and recognized several familiar faces from the event.

“I definitely feel like that extra piece of communication from us helped a lot,” said Rosales, who is half Colombian and half Guatemalan.

Shortly after the minority reception, the same group made a PowerPoint presentation at the DPT faculty meeting that painted a vivid picture of what it’s like to be a minority student in the division while seeking greater inclusiveness in student recruiting.

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“Our goal was to create awareness and to start the process of bringing about change,” said Rosales. “We know that this is, by no means, something that we are going to change overnight. Changing culture and diversity is a process so we wanted to spark some conversation and let it be known that this is something the students are noticing even if they [faculty] don’t think we are.”

Jarvis called the meeting with faculty a “turning point” that has already led to some positive changes. One of the meeting’s organizers, 2018 graduate Nathalie Angel, who was raised by her Colombian parents in South Florida, agreed saying the faculty’s enthusiastic response to the presentation exceeded expectations.

“It was received very positively,” she said. “A lot of the faculty reached out to us personally after the meeting to ask how they can help and there’s definitely been good follow-through.”

Pullen, who has served as what she describes as the “unofficial adviser” for many of the division’s minority students, is heartened by the fact that the diversity issue is “really getting traction” and that substantial improvements are on the way within the division. Noting that new Interim Director Marie Johanson is “incredibly supportive” of diversity efforts, Pullen said that a new Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is in the works and that several new and experienced minority alumni are pledging to work to enhance diversity in the physical therapy field, not just at Emory, but throughout the country.

She is currently working with 2013 Emory DPT graduates Onifade and DeAndrea Bullock to start the National Association of Black Physical Therapists, an affiliate of APTA that will facilitate networking and mentorship among African Americans in the profession. Bullock, who works at an outpatient neurology clinic in Marietta, Ga., wants to be a mentor in whom minority students can confide.

“If there are things that come up in the clinic or in the classroom, I want students to feel like they can talk about it and be able to relate to somebody who understands where they’re coming from,” she said.

In the meantime, both new and experienced Emory minority DPT alumni acknowledge that for real change to occur within the physical therapy field, there must be a collective grassroots effort nationwide to promote the field to minorities at the middle and high school levels. According to Angel, several Atlanta-based Emory DPT alumni have agreed to work together to create a “pipeline” with area K-12 schools that will allow them to promote the field at events like career days and health fairs—something that wasn’t done when they were growing up.

“In the black community, we aren’t aware of all of the health careers,” Onifade explained. “Growing up, our parents would go to the medical doctor but had never gone to a physical therapist. It was not a profession that they were knowledgeable about, so naturally, we were never encouraged to pursue that career.”

At the classroom level, Pullen, who serves on the university’s Commission on Racial and Social Justice, will continue to advocate for a curriculum that reflects America’s changing demographics.

“If our students are going to be practicing medicine in diverse communities, our responsibility is more than teaching them anatomy and muscle testing, it’s teaching them about diversity and inclusion,” she said.

Rosales, who recently started practicing at a pediatric outpatient clinic in Atlanta, is proud that she was part of a group that accelerated the diversity conversation to make physical therapy more enticing to minority students.

“As long as it’s being talked about, there’s awareness, and more and more people are discussing it and understanding why it’s important,” she says. “I think, in the long run, that will produce some positive change.”

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