Nationwide, only 5 percent of physical therapists are African American, while a mere 6 percent are Latino. The field has a long way to go before its practitioners are truly representative of the nation’s diversity, but USC is helping lead the charge with anti-racism practices aimed at building a more diverse workforce.
Ebonee Stephens exemplifies the skilled, committed sort of practitioner who dedicates herself to improving lives. Yet, she was at risk of not being able to advance her physical therapy career because of the antiquated admission practices of many colleges and universities.
Stephens wanted to become a physical therapist ever since she was 10 years old, when her sibling suffered a baseball injury.
“My older brother was playing little league football when a helmet crushed his left knee,” she told USC Online.
The collision tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and the following year, he tore the ACL in his right knee. Stephens accompanied her brother to his physical therapy sessions in their hometown of Houston, which is how she initially became exposed to the field.
The profession spoke to her love of sports as well as her interest in teaching: “When I realized how physical therapy combined education with sports, it seemed like the best thing in the world,” Stephens said.
After college, Stephens entered the profession as a physical therapy assistant (PTA). But instead of outpatient sports, she soon fell in love with acute-based hospital physical therapy.
While Stephens found the work rewarding, she wanted to be of greater service by becoming a fully fledged physical therapist. So, she started applying to Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs, as the degree is a crucial qualification to becoming a practicing PT.
But even with an undergraduate degree and five years of PTA experience, Stephens found it challenging to enter a DPT program.
“I applied to more than 20 schools and had 19 rejection letters,” she said.
She was on several waitlists, but selection to a program remained elusive. Determined to succeed, she added experience to her portfolio, including specialties such as stroke, orthopedics and wound care.
“I even took on home health pediatrics for a year,” she said. “I wanted a breadth of experience — and to show how much I wanted to earn a DPT.”
She had almost resigned herself to becoming a physician assistant or medical assistant instead of following her passion for physical therapy.
“Faith is really important to me,” she said. “I was just trying to listen to the man upstairs to see if he wanted another path for me.”
With the additional experience, Stephens was accepted into the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy’s hybrid pathway program during the pandemic in 2020.
Holistic Approach to Anti-Racism
With PTA experience and a commitment to service that includes volunteering in nursing homes dating back to her teen years, Stephens should have been a sought-after candidate for a DPT degree.
It took USC, however, to recognize the skills she already had and her desire to significantly improve the lives of patients — from those recovering from stroke or afflicted with other neurological conditions to people who had undergone total hip or knee replacements.
USC’s Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy has long employed a holistic approach to admissions, going beyond grades and test scores to consider such factors as life experience in gauging students’ abilities, commitment and potential. But after the murder of George Floyd, division faculty and staff realized they needed to do more to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).
“In the summer of 2020, we had a community conversation within our division where we invited faculty, staff, students, alumni to dialogue about what was going on,” said Didi Matthews, vice chair of EDI and associate professor of clinical physical therapy.
Based on those conversations, the division announced that it could not “excel in the practice of physical therapy while ignoring the racism that permeates the system in which we practice.” So, division leadership developed a comprehensive anti-racism plan with clear objectives and measurable goals.
Reflecting the Population
“Approximately 30 percent of our student cohorts identify as an underrepresented racial ethnic group,” Matthews said. Although noting “that’s not a small feat,” she and her colleagues are determined to increase that percentage.
“It’s really important that our health care system reflects our larger population,” said clinical therapy instructor Terry Richardson II.
Diverse caregivers bring skills in cultural competence that improve patients’ experiences across racial, ethnic, linguistic, socioeconomic and other demographic lines. A more inclusive profession can also help better address disparities in care so that, as Richardson said, “we can ultimately create a better and more equitable system for everyone.”
In addition to attracting students such as Stephens, USC has also partnered with the historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana to create an early assurance program that offers a fast track to the division for qualified students wanting to earn a DPT.
DPT Hybrid Pathway Advantage
The USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy also widens inclusiveness by offering the DPT in a hybrid format that blends online instruction with service learning and clinical experience.
Stephens, for example, who will graduate from the DPT program in May 2023, has performed a clinical rotation in Los Angeles as well as several in Houston, where she resides. Meanwhile, she continues pursuing the program’s intensive classroom and laboratory curriculum.
“I fly to California about every two months,” Stephens explained. “And we’re in class from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for 14 days straight doing the labs.”
Although it’s been hard being away from her significant other and two children — a 4-year-old son and daughter who will turn 10 in December — the grueling schedule is rewarding and already paying professional dividends. One hospital where she has been working wants to put her on the path to becoming a program director.
Stephens said what she loves most about USC’s DPT program is also what she likes least: “the amount of information we are given.” But, she adds, “we are also given the flexibility to create our own patient interventions based on the educational foundation” provided by her professors.
She’s also been surprised by the level of confidence she has gained: “I’m more confident to treat high-need patients and to speak up [when] something I don’t believe in [occurs],” she said.
Helping and Being Helped
Stephens especially appreciates the division’s mentorship program, which not only connects students to a dedicated faculty member for added support, but also has a “buddy system” through which students coach each other. Each incoming DPT candidate is assigned to a second-year student who serves as a “buddy.”
Being connected with a diverse group of mentors and mentees — from those who are fresh out of school to seasoned professionals — has helped Stephens grapple with ethical issues in the clinic and prepare for upcoming semesters.
As she uses the DPT to advance her career, Stephens plans to open a nonprofit to help as many people as possible.
“Many people aren’t aware of the signs of a stroke or that there are healthy foods that also taste good,” she said. “I want to build a nonprofit that’s a resource of knowledge that people can trust.”
Stephens also wants to provide assistive devices such as wheelchairs and prosthetics to people who cannot afford them.
“I’m a big fan of treating everyone the same. My parents really instilled in me that we all deserve the respect we get,” she concluded.
Learn more about the hybrid online/on-campus pathway of USC’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program today.