• Defining Moment

    Dedicated to Diversification

    A student spreads a message of inclusion.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    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.

    "Thank you for today," she said quietly. "I've never seen a physical therapist like you." What she meant was, it was as if I'd been speaking directly to her, conveying the same message I had internalized during my high school days.

    You can, too.

    We sometimes forget the effect that something as simple as our mere presence in a room can have. If I hadn't met and learned about so many successful Vietnamese Americans when I was in high school, I might never have had the confidence to target and pursue my own career dreams. My presence in that elementary school classroom, in the same way, was a signal to those children that race and ethnicity have nothing to do with inherent ability. What truly limits us are gaps in our knowledge of what's possible.

    I'm now president of the PTMLA. But that's not the only way in which diversity has been a big part of my experience in PT school. As I continued through my program—I'm due to graduate next month—I sought to incorporate diversity into my clinical rotations. Not only did I seek rotations in areas of Orange County that are underserved by health care services or that serve populations and cultures with which I'm unfamiliar, but I also was determined to learn from those diverse populations and acquire skills that will help me meet their needs most sensitively and effectively when I'm a practicing clinician.

    I read up on and asked questions about the cultural traditions and preferences of different population groups, for example, and I used that knowledge to inform how I went about implementing the plan of care. I informed my Spanish-speaking patients "Estoy aqui para ayudar" ("I'm here to help") at the outset to try to put them at ease. I learned the words in their language for pertinent body parts and basic movements in order to make it easier for them to follow along with me.

    Also, I went on a service trip to provide physical therapy to orphaned children in Vietnam. It was a powerful and humbling experience to see what a significant effect physical therapists can have in places where access to health care is minimal. As PT students, it's easy for us to get stressed out by our studies and preoccupied with the looming specter of the board exam. But we shouldn't ever lose sight of the big picture: the ultimate reward of a career making a difference in people's lives.

    My experience at that elementary school as a new DPT student and all my subsequent lessons in diversity have served as great reminders of the overriding principle that will guide me as a licensed clinician: Our patients—whatever their color, culture, or belief system—are not their diagnoses. They are people with diagnoses. None of us can change the color of our skin or the details of our personal background. We don't need to. What we do need to do is to bring the knowledge and skills we've acquired in school to bear in ways that are culturally sensitive and caring—ways that demonstrate that our profession is open to anyone interested in serving others and willing to work hard.

    You can, too.

    The more clearly a diverse world can see itself in what PTs do, the more diverse our profession is sure to become.

    Jessica Nguyen, SPT

    Jessica Nguyen, SPT, is a third-year student in the doctor of physical therapy program at the University of Southern California.  


    1. American Physical Therapy Association. Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service 2016-2017 Applicant Report Data. http://www.ptcas.org/uploadedFiles/PTCASorg/About_PTCAS/PTCASApplicantDataRpt.pdf. Accessed January 16, 2018.


    Jessica, Thank you for sharing your story. I too have found impact on my view of the world by opting to attend a historically black college. May I share your story with our clinical education consortium at our next meeting? Fondly, Renee Huth
    Posted by Renee Huth on 3/30/2019 2:11:02 PM
    Jessica, I just found a moment to read your article and it was time very well spent. I am very proud of you! Congratulations – both for a wonderful article and amazing legacy! And to for your soon graduation!! Nina
    Posted by Nina Bradley on 4/8/2019 5:50:40 PM

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