The unique partnership aims to prepare traditionally underrepresented students to enter USC’s top-ranked doctor of physical therapy program
BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14
April 17, 2019
The physical therapy profession has a diversity problem.
Even as the U.S. population grows ever more diverse, the profession’s racial demographics have remained relatively unchanged. Nearly 80 percent of all practicing physical therapists are Caucasian, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s a problem that the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) aim to tackle, thanks to a new partnership between one of the nation’s top historically black colleges and physical therapy programs.
“We ultimately want our profession to represent our patient population in every facet,” said Instructor of Clinical Physical Therapy Terry Richardson II, who helped forge the unique partnership. “We specifically wanted to partner with XULA because they have been No. 1 in the U.S. for placing African-American students in health professional schools for well over 20 years.”
The partnership is meant to create a pipeline for XULA students to complete their prerequisite courses, gain valuable hands-on experience and develop mentoring relationships with Trojan faculty members.
“My hope is that, thanks to this partnership, more Xavier students will include physical therapy while thinking about careers in health care,” said Xavier Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Anne E. McCall. “In the process, they will further diversify this important profession and help us fulfill our mission of contributing to a more just and humane society.
How it works
XULA students can apply to the Early Assurance Program during the spring of their sophomore year. To be eligible, they must be committed to a physical therapy career and have maintained at least a 3.2 overall and science GPA.
The USC admissions committee will review all applications and invite the most qualified candidates to interview on campus the summer before their junior year. During the selection process, the USC admissions committee will consider academic performance, background, diverse experiences and perspectives, leadership potential, maturity, strong letters of support and a passion for service.
Once accepted, XULA students will begin receiving mentorship and individualized attention from USC faculty members to help them maintain academic success and become leaders in their field. They will also be offered summer opportunities to gain research and clinical experience. Initially, USC and XULA hope to enroll as many as five to seven students every year.
“This partnership will create room for learning opportunities that can’t be found in a textbook,” says Richardson, who is also an XULA graduate, “which is why partnerships like these are so important in higher education.”
After graduating from XULA, Early Assurance Program students will be admitted to USC’s doctor of physical therapy program as long as they have maintained their 3.2 GPA, finished all the program’s prerequisite courses and completed a minimum of 150 hours of clinical experience in a physical therapy setting.
Blazing the trail
Last summer, Keairez Coleman helped pave the way for the then-prototypical partnership, spending eight weeks at USC as a McNair Scholar, a program meant to increase the number of graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. Since then, Coleman has been accepted into USC’s DPT program and will begin this fall as a member of the DPT Class of 2022.
This summer, USC will welcome another XULA student, Adili Rikondja, a senior who will take the baton from Coleman and help USC further flesh out the program.
“I hope to serve as a role model for other Xavier students interested in the field,” she said. “I have two mentees at Xavier who will be eligible in 2020 to be part of the actual first class to participate in the program. It means the world to me to know that I have paved the way for other deserving students.”
Rikondjia first became interested in physical therapy after suffering an ankle injury during volleyball practice in high school. Thanks to treatment she received at Kaiser Permanente, she returned to the court a year later.
After high school, Rikondja found herself back at Kaiser Permanente, this time working in the Kaiser Permanente Summer Youth Employment Program.
“It was meaningful to shadow and learn from the same physical therapists who rehabilitated me back to good health,” she said. “I appreciated their empathy, wide realm of knowledge and enthusiastic attitudes toward their profession.”
It was during this internship that Rikondja got advice from someone else who blazed a trail for African Americans: Renee Rommero DPT ’96, the first African American to graduate from USC’s post-professional doctor of physical therapy program.
“On my last day, she told me that I had the potential to accomplish anything I set my mind to,” Rikondja said. “Representation is important. When I finish school, I hope that my presence in the field will inspire other minorities to pursue physical therapy as a profession.”
The USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy is ranked No. 1 in physical therapy educational programs by the U.S. News and World Report, a distinction it’s held since 2004.
Xavier University of Louisiana is a historically black college in New Orleans. It ranks first in the nation in the number of African American graduates who go on to complete medical school. It is also the top ranked university for the number of African American students earning undergraduate degrees in both the biological/life sciences and the physical sciences.