First-Gen Doctor of Physical Therapy Graduate Aims to Help Others Forge Paths to Success

Natalia Barajas, who completed the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) hybrid pathway, feels a great responsibility to give back to others who haven’t had the same opportunities.

By John Hobbs

Natalia Barajas (DPT ’22) has wanted to be a physical therapist for as long as she can remember.

During childhood, when her factory worker father would come home with excruciating back pain, she would gently walk on his back and pull on his legs to afford the weary worker some modicum of relief.

“I was able to connect that pain limits function, and when it began to affect his ability to work, our family felt the financial burden,” she said.

But a path to a professional degree was never a guarantee. Barajas’ father had less than an eighth-grade education; her mother, a high-school education.

Barajas would have to forge her own path forward, without the benefit of college-educated parents guiding her along the way — and that’s just what she did, earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Whittier College and a master’s degree in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania.

Being a Champion for Others

While completing prerequisites to get into physical therapy school, Barajas — who had earlier worked as a personal trainer, early interventionist, and strength and conditioning coach — took a physical therapy aide position at USC Physical Therapy, the faculty practice located on the Health Sciences Campus.

“At USC Physical Therapy, I saw the incredible work done by our faculty, how they advocated for and achieved patients’ goals, and how they mentored students,” Barajas explained. “Everyone was like family. So, I wanted to be a part of that environment, learn as much as possible from them, so I decided to continue my education at USC.”

Barajas entered USC’s hybrid online/on-campus Doctor of Physical Therapy program in 2019.

While earning her degree, she participated in a number of community-minded organizations, including USC’s Physical Therapy Multicultural Leadership Alliance, which delivers presentations to underserved students about the physical therapy profession; Med-COR, a partnership between local high schools and USC that aims to increase the pool of high school students of color committed to the pursuit of health professional careers; and the South Whittier School District School Board, onto which Barajas was elected in 2018.

“The district I serve and grew up in is low socioeconomically. There are many non-English speaking students, who are below state standardized test scores,” Barajas said of her school board position. “I wanted to be a champion for these students by creating a more straightforward educational trajectory for them.”

Be the Most Determined

Following graduation, Barajas began her USC’s sports physical therapy residency.

Once her residency is complete, she plans to use her USC physical therapy education to open her own practice.

“Being a part of the Trojan Family has granted me countless skill sets from understanding research to evidence-based practices, many of which will help me become an effective physical therapist,” she said.

And while she has reached the pinnacle of a physical therapy education, she feels a responsibility to continue helping other first-generation college students out there — work she aims to carry on throughout her career.

“I genuinely believe that gaining education comes with the responsibility of helping others who aren’t granted the same opportunity,” she said. “For all the first-gens thinking about going to college, we know the road is not easy. We may have to overcome more trials than many others, but know this, you do not have to be the most prepared, just be determined.”

Learn more about the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) hybrid online/on-campus program today.

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