James McAfee wins APTA Outstanding Student Award

James McAfee portrait

By Katharine Gammon

James McAfee DPT '18 didn't know whether he wanted to go into medicine or physical therapy. 

As a UCLA graduate, he got a job working at a physical therapy clinic where he saw something remarkable. "I saw patients getting better. I saw therapists working closely with patients. And I watched while relationships were built," he says. "That's what made me realize what physical therapy had to offer."

McAfee, who graduates next week with his doctor of physical therapy degree, recently won the APTA Outstanding Student Award, which is meant to recognize physical therapy students with exceptional accomplishments and contributions to both the APTA and the physical therapy profession itself. 

The Best Version of Himself

"Our program is extremely rigorous, and James has maintained a position in the top 10 percent of his class academically for his entire education," says Cheryl Resnik associate chair and associate professor of clinical physical therapy. "What is exceptional about this is that in addition to academic excellence, he has been able to make outstanding contributions as a volunteer and leader." 

For his part, McAfee thinks physical therapy is a great way to help people become the best versions of themselves - and that applies both to patients and to students. Your career should represent your best effort," he says. "I think USC did a great job of facilitating my path. They open a lot of doors for any student working in advocacy, sports or inpatient care. USC brings together a wide range of faculty that make these diverse paths very real to students." 

What's Next?

After he graduates, McAfee plans to complete a one-year residency in orthopedics with Gary Souza MS '00, DPT '00, an adjunct assistant professor of clinical physical therapy, at hisDiamond Bar practice. He says that many students choose a residency option, which is a good foundation for the rest of their careers.

If he could send a message to incoming students, McAfee says he would encourage them to search for the unique parts of the profession they find appealing. "If you're not passionate about something, it can be draining - especially when you're spending long hours doing it," he says. "But when you find the things that are recharging your battery rather than draining it, those are the things that send you forward." For him, those were advocacy and orthopedic practice.

Importance of Advocacy

McAfee has served as his class' elected APTA representative for the past two and a half years and has been instrumental in insuring that the student body is aware of practice and legislative issues that will impact their careers, Resnik says. He held dinners to bring together students from different L.A. physical therapy schools to discuss how to advocate for their field. He hopes to educate lawmakers and influence policy about what physical therapists can actually do with their degrees. 

Eventually, he hopes to go into teaching. He's especially interested in the ways that educational experiences can scale up to larger audiences, and he's looking forward to seeing USC's hybrid program starting up.

Power of Social Media

One of the ways he has worked to reach out is by starting a Snapchat account dedicated to physical therapy education. McAfee estimates he has 2,000 people who watch daily stories that he's been creating for the past few years. "For me, that's a great way to deliver a succinct and valuable message, whether that's anatomy or covering topics, in a meaningful way because I know students have busy schedules," he says The Snapchat account - snapspt - is still active, and he has compiled the archives of more than 300 stories on a website: snapspt.com. 

He continues to be motivated by learning more about how people move, and how to help them. "We don't know everything about the human body, and we never will," McAfee says. "It's called medical practice and PT practice for a reason: we can't get it perfect every time."

Posted May 2, 2018