A Decade of Distinction

Doctor of Physical Therapy program celebrates 10 years

Since 2007, the University of North Georgia’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program has trained and produced hundreds of therapists with exceptional knowledge and skills – resulting in an impressive 97 percent pass rate on the National Physical Therapy Examination. However, it is the hands-on, practical learning experiences that sets UNG’s program apart from others and prepares graduates to be a positive influence in their practices and in their communities.


What happens when physical therapy students team up with design students? They develop new and exciting tools to help patients reach a higher quality of life.

For the past two summers, UNG’s Department of Physical Therapy has hosted students from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Industrial Design for a one-week collaboration dubbed cREATe (creating rehab engineering and assistive technology experiences). During the week, teams of students from both programs work to build devices that address specific and unique problems faced by patients. The results have been nothing short of life-changing for the patients and their families.

“The students came up with a lot of great ideas, including a type of tether that will allow me to walk both of my kids at the same time. That would help me feel much better about having Carston in areas such as parking lots, where he is at risk,” said Lettitia Ussery of Lumpkin County. Carston, her 5-year-old son, was the subject of one student group’s efforts.

The program was founded and is directed by Dr. Alison Alhadeff, a local physical therapist who also teaches courses at UNG, and Dr. Stephen Sprigle, professor of design and disability design at Georgia Tech.

During this summer’s program, the founders were excited and heartened to learn that all of the participating patients and families from the inaugural event in 2015 are still using the student-created devices and are enjoying a greater level of independence.


When six high school students from Fulton and Forsyth counties were looking for opportunities to explore medical fields and learn anatomy and dissection skills, Dr. Teresa Conner-Kerr, dean of UNG’s College of Health Sciences & Professions, extended an invitation to the students to spend 10 weeks this summer working with DPT students.

“I definitely want to go pre-med, and having this experience — specifically dissection skills, for me — is a wonderful opportunity,” said Vaishnavi Bavadekar, who attends Alpharetta High School. “It’s hard to find experience like this even in undergraduate programs, let alone high school.”

All of the students said the opportunity inspired career choices or at least narrowed their educational focus.

“We wanted to move beyond community engagement to give high school students a chance to gain knowledge and experience that is very difficult to find before graduate school,” Conner-Kerr said. “This opportunity greatly informed the choices these students will make for their schooling and their careers, which is very valuable at this stage of their lives.”

The program also helped DPT students build leadership and communication skills. Mariah James, a first-year student, said it was valuable practice in helping her grow the ability to describe concepts in physical therapy, which is vital when communicating with patients.


One DPT professor set out on a mission several years ago to provide physical therapy to those who may not otherwise have access to the service. Enter the Gold Dust Riders, a collection of children and adults with disabilities who benefit from a unique type of physical therapy involving horses, called hippotherapy. The riding camps were orchestrated by physical therapy students led by Dr. Terrie Millard, professor of physical therapy.

The DPT students, assisted by the horses, helped individuals with disabilities become stronger, improve their range of motion, improve their balance and endurance, and also improve their ability to interact with others. They learned how to apply this knowledge to assist their patients in meeting their goals, such as improved ambulation, head control, trunk control, or any number of other things.

“Hippotherapy can sometimes be even more effective than traditional physical therapy. As the patients adapt to the movement of the horse, they development new movement patterns, sometimes activating muscles that have never been used appropriately,” Millard said. “Patients get stronger, improve their ability to recognize and correct balance loss, improve endurance and have fun at the same time. Children and adults who have difficulty interacting and/or communicating with others also sometimes find barriers lifted and can engage more readily with others.”

Physical Therapy students encourage a young patient to walk.
Shaun Underwood (left), a DPT student, encourages 5-year-old Carson Ussery to walk toward him during UNG’s second create conference.


A completely pro-bono project benefiting community members began this fall. The new STAR (Student Therapy and Rehab) clinic is a collaboration between DPT students Michael Petron, Clay Power, Emily Dearing, Ronnie Pierce, and Dr. Don Walsh, associate professor of physical therapy.

In mid-September, the clinic opened to a handful of patients recommended through the Community Helping Place, an outreach program in Lumpkin County.

“We saw a need for physical therapy services in the uninsured and underserved population of Lumpkin County,” Petron said. “We also saw a need within our physical therapy department to provide the students with an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience to supplement our academic curriculum, and the idea for this clinic seemed to provide for both sets of needs.”

The clinic involves DPT students of all levels, and each patient receives care from a three-student team under faculty supervision. The arrangement allows for patients to receive free high-quality care and provides students the opportunity to practice clinical skills and patient relations in a controlled environment.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn how to administer a clinic while they are in school,” said Dr. MaryEllen Franklin, head of UNG’s Department of Physical Therapy. “I wish I had been able to experience that myself as a student.”

The students and Walsh hope to see the clinic grow and expand its services in the coming years.

Physical Therapy student practices her skills.
A PT student helping someone with their balance skills.
The clinic setting helps PT students practice patient treatment skills including mobility testing and balance exercises.