Defining moment: Dedicated to diversification

A student spreads a message of inclusion.

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I grew up in the northern Orange County town of Westminster, California, in an area nicknamed “Little Saigon.” I went to La Quinta High School, which despite its Hispanic-sounding name had a student body that probably was 75% Vietnamese Americans or recent Vietnamese immigrants. In fact, so many kids shared my last name that 3 counselors were assigned exclusively to Nguyens!

I was surrounded by people who looked like me, and I always was meeting and hearing stories about alumni who’d graduated and gone on to college and successful careers in fields such as engineering, medicine, and even astrophysics. It was very affirming. It all had the effect of implanting these words in my head as a Vietnamese American:

You can, too.

It was easy for me to see myself in my predecessors’ shoes, becoming an achiever in my chosen field. I’d been fascinated by the sciences and health care from an early age. I volunteered at Children’s Hospital of Orange County as an undergraduate, thinking I might become a pediatrician. But when I saw how much time the physical therapists there spent with their patients, and the opportunity they had to help those patients grow in their abilities over time, I shifted my focus. I started volunteering in physical therapy clinics and fell in love with the profession.

The more time I spent outside the bubble of Little Saigon, however, the more evidence I saw that minority representation was far from a given in higher education. In college, I saw a lot of students who not only didn’t look like me but who didn’t come close to collectively mirroring the racial and ethnic diversity of American society. I came to realize that not all minority communities are aware of the career possibilities that exist, and that they thus aren’t encouraging their young people to seek those opportunities. When I decided to pursue a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT), I was shocked to see that the numbers for minority representation across DPT programs nationwide were sorely lacking.

I applied to DPT programs in 2015. The following figures are from the 2016-2017 admissions cycle but are similar to what they had been the previous year. Of the 19,025 students who applied to DPT programs via the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service, only about 26% came from a minority background.1 Among the 9,707 accepted applicants, the percentage was even lower—about 20%.1 I found this situation unacceptable. When I entered the DPT program at the University of Southern California (USC), I was determined to play a role in trying to diversify the population of physical therapists in this country.

An important opportunity emerged quickly. On my very first day of classes, I learned of the existence of the Physical Therapy Multicultural Leadership Alliance (PTMLA), a student-led organization created at USC in 2004. Its goals are to educate the local community about physical therapy, promote diversity within the profession, and serve minority and underserved communities through events and activities ranging from presentations at elementary, middle, and high schools and career booths at college fairs to providing physical therapy services to minority and underserved populations both locally and in other countries.

The first event I attended as a newly minted member of the PTMLA was held at an elementary school across from our campus in Los Angeles. A few of us gave a short presentation to a group of third graders on what a physical therapist is and how physical therapists provide care and help patients. When it was over, the kids rushed to the front of the room to play with the goniometer and blood pressure cuffs. Parents stepped up to ask what kind of grades their kids might need in order to pursue a career as a physical therapist. Then, a timid girl who looked something like me came forward. I had the feeling it had taken all the courage she could muster for her to speak to me.

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©2019 American Physical Therapy Association. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.