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By John Hobbs

First-Generation DPT Graduate Aims to Help Others Forge Paths to Success

Natalia Barajas portrait

Natalia Barajas feels a great responsibility to give back to others who haven’t had the same opportunities.



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 says. 

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 explains. “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 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 says of her school board position. “… I wanted to be a champion for these students by creating a more straightforward educational trajectory for them.”

Related: Physical Therapy Student Finds Connection with High School Student Through Med-COR Program


Be the Most Determined 


After Barajas graduates in May, she will begin 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 skillsets from understanding research to evidence-based practices, many of which will help me become an effective physical therapist,” she says. 

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 continue.

“I genuinely believe that gaining education comes with the responsibility of helping others who aren’t granted the same opportunity,” she says. “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.”