Dr. Carla Huggins, clinical associate professor of physical therapy (PT) and director of clinical education, understands the challenges Black students face as they prepare for a physical therapy career because she experienced them.
Huggins has a mission to help Georgia State PT students navigate complex racial issues.
“Many of us who are Black or of different racial backgrounds aren’t necessarily experts, but we can share our experiences,” Huggins said.
Elected to the American Council of Academic Physical Therapy Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consortium Executive Board (a national professional organization) in 2020, Huggins was recently elected as the inaugural DEI director of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Georgia.
According to the APTA, white applicants are accepted into PT programs at twice the rate of Black applicants. The U.S. population is 13 percent Black, but only five percent of physical therapists are Black.
Georgia State’s PT program has a little more diversity among its students. In the 2020-21 academic year, 30 percent of the doctor of physical therapy (DPT) students were minority and nearly half the minority students, 14.6 percent, were Black.
When Huggins applied to the physical therapy program in her home state, she landed on the waitlist. Hoping to improve her acceptance chances, she asked for an interview with the PT Department, but the outcome discouraged her.
“I met with one of the faculty members, toured the department and saw pictures of the classes, classes that were literally all white female,” said Huggins. “I decided I needed to expand my search.”
Huggins thought she wouldn’t be admitted to the program, so she applied to a more diverse PT program at another university.
She chose Georgia State as a faculty member for its diversity.
“When I came here to interview, it felt like I was back at Temple [her PT alma mater] in terms of location, environment, demographics,” said Huggins.
Black candidates may face additional challenges when applying to PT programs. Some are first-generation college graduates and may not know about pre-application observation requirements or have access to GRE test preparation. Because DPT programs offer graduate degrees, they are more expensive, with fewer scholarships and financial aid opportunities.
Huggins advocates for Black and biracial applicants, who have a likelihood of success as future physical therapists.
“As part of the faculty reviewing candidates, I look for indicators that the applicant might be a strong clinical prospect,” Huggins said.
DPT students benefit from a PT student diversity group Huggins started, now student-led by chair Miriah Smith, a second-year Georgia State DPT student. The students learn from each other. The diversity group provides a safe space for minority students to discuss and practice responses to uncomfortable situations they encounter, especially in clinical settings.
“If you are in an outpatient setting with different people, coming from all walks of life, [the student] may have to contend with someone saying something racist, said Huggins. “What if the clinical instructor didn’t respond the way they should have? By sharing with the group, students who are new to the program can be prepared.”
The diversity group programs help white students learn about racial issues from their peers and provide their support.
“White students often say, ‘sometimes I don’t know what to say or if I said it right,'” said Huggins. “To me as a Black person, I rather you say that than say nothing at all.”
Non-minority students are encouraged to participate in a monthly speaker series to learn more about their classmates’ experiences, opening their eyes to possible barriers to the profession.
Huggins recognizes the value of DEI education in the next generation of physical therapists. She plans community outreach to high school students to create a pipeline of future PT students among underrepresented minorities.
When the APTA DEI consortium offered a series of listening sessions around diversity, Huggins and other site education coordinators developed a session for students to share their clinical experiences as people of color in a white-dominated field. One of the student speakers was Smith.
“At clinic, we students want to succeed, so we often don’t speak up when microaggressions occur,” said Smith.
She notes that improving the student experience in PT practices is good for its overall population.
“Things that are going to benefit Black and brown students also benefit Black and brown patients and clinicians,” she said.
Smith also wants to focus on recruiting potential Black PT students among Atlanta’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Most of Georgia State’s minority PT degree candidates graduate from state colleges and universities, including Georgia State.
“Diversity attracts more diverse students,” said Smith.
— written by Angela Arnold Go