UCA marks five decades of training world-class physical therapists
As the UCA physical therapy program celebrates its 50th year, Nat Grubbs ’87 can clearly see the key to its success.
“When I think of UCA physical therapy, I think of the faculty,” said Grubbs.
With a relationship to UCA PT that stretches back more than 35 years, he should know. As an alumnus, former instructor and ongoing supporter, Grubbs has been a firsthand witness to the array of first-rate faculty.
“We have had an incredible succession of impactful faculty members,” Grubbs said.
“From Joe Finnell, who established the program when there was no physical therapy school in Arkansas and was still on the faculty when I was a student in ’86, to Dr. Venita Lovelace-Chandler, who chaired the program for 23 years; Nancy Reese, former chair and now dean of the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences; longtime faculty member Bill Bandy; plus many others who have left their mark on the program – this is a group of incredible people,” he added.
Grubbs noted that part of what makes the faculty so special is that they are more invested in student achievement than in pursuing academic accolades for themselves.
“The culture within the UCA physical therapy program is all about student success,” Grubbs said. “The faculty believe that everything else will take care of itself if you take care of the students and facilitate their success – and I think they’ve done a wonderful job of that.”
Recognizing a Need
Finnell started the UCA physical therapy program in 1969 at a time when Arkansas had about fewer than 40 licensed physical therapists spread thin among a population of 1.9 million. Finnell came from Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas at the invitation of Arkansas health care leaders who envisioned the impact a physical therapy program could have.
The program matriculated its first graduates in 1972.
Those first graduates earned a bachelor’s degree. Over the years, the program has grown to offer other degrees, including a Master of Science in physical therapy.
Since 2000, students have been able to earn either a Doctor of Physical Therapy or Doctor of Philosophy in physical therapy.
UCA remains the only program in the state to offer both DPT and Ph.D. physical therapy programs. The university also began offering an accredited Pediatric Physical Therapy Residency program in 2009.
Today, UCA is home to the largest physical therapy program in the state. Each cohort consists of 60 students, which is significantly larger than other physical therapy programs in Arkansas.
The program is nationally recognized, with alumni practicing around Arkansas and across the country. It has 300 clinical partners and 15 full-time faculty members, including 10 who hold a Ph.D. and 11 who are board-certified in clinical specialties in a variety of areas including pediatrics, neurologic physical therapy, orthopedics, sports, women’s health and wound care.
UCA PT program alumni now number more than 2,500.
“Everywhere you go in Arkansas physical therapy, you will find UCA graduates,” said Malia Shelton, a student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program. She first noticed it when she was researching potential places to train.
“My first impressions were that the faculty were really personable,” Shelton said. “They knew a lot of people in the community and had connections everywhere. The faculty were just outstanding.”
That impression has proven true as part of her student experience.
“Even in Fayetteville, where I’m in clinic right now, when I’m among physical therapists, they all graduated from UCA,” Shelton said. “The message is very much, ‘We love UCA students. UCA knows what they’re doing.’ It’s the faculty and it’s the legacy of having been around for so long in Arkansas.”
The story is the same for Grubbs. His PT clinic in Monticello, South Arkansas Rehabilitation Inc., has 11 employees. Seven of them are UCA graduates.
“There are UCA graduates in academia, there are UCA graduates in practice ownership, there are UCA graduates in healthcare administration and then there are so many UCA graduates just in the trenches, so to speak, working directly in patient care all day, every day,” Grubbs said. “The institution and program have made a huge impact on the state of Arkansas.”
While the quality of the faculty hasn’t changed over the years, one thing that has is the training facilities.
When the program first started, it used part of a former hospital building in Little Rock thanks to a clinical partnership. It was not really designed for physical therapy training.
“Fast-forward to now and the facilities not only are stellar, but the UCA Physical Therapy program has dedicated space in a building designed specifically for teaching physical therapy – something that is really rare in PT education,” Grubbs said, adding that physical therapy programs tend to share space with a variety of other allied health professionals, just as UCA students did in the beginning.
“Today, UCA has this dedicated, state-of-the-art Interprofessional Teaching Center and as an adjunct to that, the gross motor lab they have now is absolutely state-of-the-art,” Grubbs said.
The Interprofessional Teaching Center is part of the new Integrated Health Sciences building, which opened in August 2021 and boasts 80,000 square feet for students and faculty in the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences. The ITC offers free health care services to the public, while also serving as a training center where students learn hands-on skills and practice working as an interprofessional team.
It is the first of its kind in the region. Then again, the UCA Physical Therapy program is accustomed to being one of a kind.
Grubbs is thankful that UCA continues to recognize the Physical Therapy program as a crown jewel for the university and the state and that the UCA leadership continues to invest in its future.
“After 50 years, the UCA physical therapy program is still very much a student-facing culture,” Grubbs said. “The faculty still have not lost that commitment to student success. Thankfully, they now have even more tools at their disposal to continue their outstanding work.”
Images From the 1972 Scroll