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New Emory DPT Learning Communities

Strengthen Student/Faculty Bond
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Remember your college adviser? Many people don’t. That’s because the relationship most likely consisted of just one, maybe two, meetings, usually at the front end of a student’s college career.

At the Emory Division of Physical Therapy, a new program was put into place in 2019 that has already revolutionized the student/adviser relationship and has brought students and faculty together like never before. This new initiative, known as Learning Communities, started with the Class of 2022 and joins a group of eight to 10 students with two faculty members for monthly meetings to discuss a wide range of topics from standard curriculum issues to personal challenges such as anxiety, depression and mental health to societal issues such as social justice and LGBTQ education.

According to Emory DPT Associate Professor Tami Phillips, PT, DPT, MBA, as the division’s yearly class size expanded from 40 to 72, it became harder for faculty to cultivate the kind of meaningful relationships with students that the Emory DPT program has always been known for. While at a national conference in 2018, Phillips recalls attending a session about Learning Communities with Emory Assistant Professor Sarah Caston, PT, DPT. Both faculty members left the session eager to replicate the model at Emory. Since the launch in May 2019, Learning Communities have been a huge hit with both students and faculty and have allowed both groups to connect in a deeper way.

“It’s created a venue for both groups to get to know each other better and for students, they quickly learn that their faculty are human beings too,” says Phillips. “We have many of the same struggles that students do with work/life balance, managing stress and many other things. It’s allowed the students to see us in a different way and also realize that we’re not these intimidating faculty members who they can’t come and talk to. It’s proved to be a win-win for everybody.”

While it’s not uncommon for students in graduate school to suffer from stress and anxiety, the Learning Community model is designed to make it easier for faculty to detect when students need emotional support.

“Learning Communities don’t force people to talk about their issues, but they do provide a safe space where we acknowledge that this is stressful and that there is a need sometimes for additional support and counseling,” says Caston. “It gives more facetime and contacts for students to feel comfortable coming to their faculty advisers with these issues.”

If a student is struggling with a personal issue and has not been coming to class or is struggling academically, the student’s professor can hopefully get answers from one of his/her Learning Community advisers.

“Hopefully, that faculty member will know them better and be more aware when major things happen in their life, like the illness or death of a family member,” explains Phillips. “It allows us to treat these students in a holistic way.”

Savannah Hood, an Emory DPT student in the Class of 2022, remembers last year thinking that the mandatory Learning Communities would be just another obligation on top of so many more in graduate school. Today, she’s a big believer in the value of Learning Communities.

“I feel like every time we have Learning Communities, it’s amazing,” says Hood. “Dr. Caston is one of my Learning Community professors and she’s great. We can talk about anything and we can tell them anything we need to tell them. We can rant about anything we’re stressed about and because many of our professors went through the Emory DPT program, they totally relate to that. I’ve really loved it.”

Nela Handac, another Emory DPT student from the Class of 2022, credits Learning Communities with helping her make friends in the program much faster.

“It was especially helpful to start at the beginning of the first year because it’s pretty overwhelming to start making friends in such a large group,” says Handac. “It gives you another little team that you get to be part of. And, as you naturally make different friends, you still always have this group to come back to and get to know each other even better.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Learning Communities for the Class of 2023 started entirely online – not an ideal situation, but still beneficial says Caston.

“They’re starting the program at a very odd, unique time which can make for a more intimidating experience,” she says. “Our goal has been to let the students know that we are here for them and assure them that even though our interaction is virtual, they are never out of sight, out of mind.”

For Handac, the faculty’s commitment to building relationships with students further reinforces her decision to come to the Emory DPT program.

“Professors can really make the culture what it is, and here, I feel like I can reach out to any of them at any time, walk into their offices, text them and they’re always there,” she says. “Those are the kinds of things that from the beginning, have made me so happy that I made the decision to come here.”

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