Andrew Phan takes a selfie with his fellow members of the inaugural Doctor of Physical Therapy cohort following the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, on Brenau University's historic Gainesville campus. (Nick Bowman for Brenau University)
Andrew Phan takes a selfie with his fellow members of the inaugural Doctor of Physical Therapy cohort following the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, on Brenau University's historic Gainesville campus. (Nick Bowman for Brenau University)

Physical therapy department receives full accreditation following inaugural class’s graduation

May. 22, 2018
Kristen Bowman
Brenau University Provost James Eck, left, and Chair of the Physical Therapy Department Kathye Light fixes the academic regalia of Sarah Gay as she receives her doctorate in physical therapy during the graduate and undergraduate commencement Saturday May 5, 2018 in Gainesville, Ga. (Jason Getz for Brenau University)

Brenau University Provost James Eck, left, and Chair of the Physical Therapy Department Kathye Light fixes the academic regalia of Sarah Gay, DPT, as she receives her doctorate in physical therapy during the graduate and undergraduate commencement Saturday May 5, 2018 in Gainesville, Ga. (Jason Getz for Brenau University)

Just a fortnight after graduating its inaugural class of newly minted doctors on Saturday, May 5, Brenau University received notice that it has been fully accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

The commencement exercise for the 37 men and women who received Doctor of Physical Therapy degrees had been deemed by Brenau officials as the last major milestone in their seven-year quest to establish a high-quality program on the Gainesville campus. CAPTE granted accreditation on May 2 once it was clear that Brenau could produce well-qualified doctors who were able to pass rigid licensure examinations.

“Brenau celebrates our premier physical therapy program,” said Brenau Provost Dr. Jim Eck. “Its accreditation culminates years of hard work by our physical therapy faculty who are national leaders within their discipline. This innovative program of distinction will significantly extend the strong academic reputation of the university and the Ivester College of Health Sciences.”

Dr. Kathye Light, chair of the Brenau physical therapy department, called the accomplishment “nothing short of fabulous.”

“It’s monumental,” she said. “It was a very hard thing to do. We had obstacles and challenges and all sorts of things to do in order to keep moving it forward. So this feels huge.”

The idea for the physical therapy doctorate officially hatched in late 2012 when Brenau President Ed Schrader signed an long-term lease with the city of Gainesville for an old convention and event center near the town square that would be repurposed as the home for the physical therapy department and other health care programs. Building remodeling and construction of PT-specific facilities began shortly after.

“It is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” said Schrader. “We predicted that we would develop one of the finest physical therapy doctoral programs in the country and I believe we have done that. We already were receiving hundreds of applications each year from all over the United States for the new slots that opened up with the conditional accreditation that has been in place these past three years, and those numbers will only increase as we move forward with full accreditation.”

Now, Schrader added, the university will move forward on developing facilities for a physician assistant degree program at the same location as the PT school – what is now called brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville.

CAPTE approved candidacy for accreditation status before that first class could be admitted to the program three years ago. That followed two years of planning and another two-year process of establishing the program, building adequate facilities and hiring well-qualified professors and other staff members. The department received temporary accreditation following the 2018 spring commencement and full accreditation was dependent upon the results of the students’ board exams.

Steven Hightshue, DPT, shows off his diploma for his brother, John Hightshue, following the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, on Brenau University's historic Gainesville campus. (Nick Bowman for Brenau University)

Steven Hightshue, DPT, shows off his diploma for his brother, John Hightshue, following the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, on Brenau University’s historic Gainesville campus. (Nick Bowman for Brenau University)

In addition to certifying that the university was in general compliance with the commission’s standards and required elements, CAPTE’s continuous review since the program started also considered self-study reports, visits, comments from the program director and additional materials such as clinical information for the charter cohort of doctoral candidates.

Light said she felt confident about the education and preparation the students received for the boards, including a full two-day review course on the exams themselves.

“They were extraordinarily well conditioned to take the exam,” said Dr. Heather Ross, associate professor of physical therapy. “Furthermore, I am 100 percent confident in their abilities to get out and be excellent physical therapists. We were encouraged by feedback from clinical instructors during the last clinical placements this semester telling us how ready they are. I had one student whose clinical instructor said she was even better equipped than some of the entry-level PTs they had just hired.”

Dr. Jason Thelen from Athens, Georgia, said he felt “extremely well prepared” for the field.

“I can say confidently that going through this program has prepared me for the real world and this work,” he said. “We had feedback from our instructors in our clinical rotations that speaks for itself. That’s a testament to not just us students, but the faculty and staff. I’m just excited to hear back from everyone after we’re done with the boards to hear how everything is going.”

As founding faculty, Light and academic coordinator Dr. Mary Thigpen accepted the challenge to build a new program for a maximum of 120 doctoral candidates that, from day one, would provide nationally excellent physical therapy education.

That process included collaborating with health care entities such as Northeast Georgia Health System to give students more hands-on training opportunities. In 2016, the university followed with a pro-bono clinical setting in the Brenau Downtown Center – a functioning, open-to-the-public operation that enables doctoral candidates to work directly with patients under the supervision of licensed faculty.

Dr. Gale Starich, dean of the Ivester College of Health Sciences, did a market study prior to the opening of the program that indicated Brenau could and should support a physical therapy program.

“Evidence shows we’re a high-demand program with very good job opportunities,” Ross said. “It’s a stable career choice, and these students will have no problem finding sustainable work in our region. But another reason we feel certain this is a good career choice is it allows you to take science and help people with it. It’s a fulfilling and rewarding career.”

Ryan Ahlenius (center), one of the first graduates from Brenau University with a Doctor of Physical Therapy, jokes with friends following the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, on Brenau University's historic Gainesville campus. (Nick Bowman for Brenau University)

Ryan Ahlenius (center), one of the first graduates from Brenau University with a Doctor of Physical Therapy, jokes with friends following the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, on Brenau University’s historic Gainesville campus. (Nick Bowman for Brenau University)

Sinces its inception, the Brenau program has attracted hundreds of applicants from around the country for each cohort’s 40 slots. For the school’s fourth cohort, which starts work shortly after the first group graduates, there were 527 applications.

The real key to the program, however, has always been recruiting top students from the applicant pool. The 37 members of the class of 2018 had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.47 with disciplines ranging from behavior neuroscience and exercise science to business administration and cross-cultural studies.

Dr. David Barnett, Brenau executive vice president and CFO who guided the administrative process of converting the Downtown Center from convention facilities into and academic home for the program, is pleased with the ultimate outcomes.

“The university did an excellent job throughout the process of development and design of the new program,” Barnett said. “The university investment of more than $6 million in facilities and faculty to start the program has returned a remarkable program attracting excellent students, a world class faculty and program facilities that are remarkable to behold.”

Hillary Wood, DPT from Martin, Georgia, said it meant a great deal to her to be part of the inaugural class.

“It is awesome to be the first,” she said. “It has just been such a great thing to be part of this. More than that, we are here, we did it, and now we get to be doctors. I’m looking forward to growing the profession in this area and bringing more awareness to the benefits of physical therapy.”

According to Melissa Tavilla, operations manager and admissions advisor for the physical therapy department, the majority of the program’s students are former athletes.

“Primarily, their interest in PT was due to their personal experience with physical therapy for their own injuries,” she said. “For many others, it was a close family member that had rehabilitation of some type.”

Alyson Logan, DPT from Dacula, Georgia, first wanted to be a physical therapist in eighth grade.

“I danced and had some knee injuries and had to go through physical therapy myself,” she said. “I’ve loved it ever since.”

General inquiries: info@brenau.edu, +1-770-534-6299 or +1-800-252-5119 | Admissions: admissions@brenau.edu, +1-770-534-6100 or +1-800-252-5119 ext. 6100