Meet the PT Squad
Keelin McSweeney, Samantha Sarkisian, Caitlyn O'Fiesh, and Mariah Ramsay are known on campus as the "PT Squad." The four friends have been studying together since freshman year as part of the Health Psychology: Physical Therapy Pathway program at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS).
For each of them, becoming a physical therapist was always the ultimate goal, so the six year accelerated pathway option was ideal. Starting on the Boston campus in the Bachelor of Science in Health Psychology program, the squad spent the first three years learning about patient-centered care and evidence-based practice—something they say gives them an advantage over their peers at other universities.
Transitioning to the MCPHS-Worcester campus this past fall to begin the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, the squad will earn their bachelor's degree after completing the first year of the graduate program.
We caught up with the squad as they shared their experience as pathway students and how the health psychology program set them up for success in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
Our Health Psychology: Physical Therapy Pathway program is an accelerated option for students hoping to earn their DPT. What made you decide to enroll in the program at MCPHS?
Samantha: I guess for me, kind of the draw to the initial program would have been the accelerated six years. Taking the year out really just helps get you in the workforce a little bit earlier, and then with it being Boston for our undergrad, there are so many areas around there where you can do volunteering. We had something in health psychology called field placement, so there were a lot of opportunities and accessible places to do that in Boston.
Keelin: I was really drawn to the "small school in the big city" kind of feel. I'm from a really small town in New Jersey, so I didn't want to be overwhelmed by too many people. When I visited the Boston campus, I got the feeling that everyone was eventually going to know who I was, and when I got there, my professors knew my name, they knew what exams I had going on. I had the same people in most of my classes. Health psychology was smaller, as far as majors go, so we all really got to work and know each other a little bit better, which is nice.
Mariah: I think the settings around -- like the clinical settings we'd be in in Boston and Worcester -- kind of drew me to both campuses, because I knew I'd be attending both, so it would be great exposure to all different types of PT.
Caitlyn: Yeah, I agree! And, I just knew what I wanted to do from day one, so the six year program length was ideal. Boston is a great city and it was a smaller school.
So how do you feel the health psychology program has set you up for success in the DPT program?
Caitlyn: With health psychology, from the beginning, you're learning a lot about the biopsychosocial model, which is kind of our golden standard. So you learn more about how having a conversation with a patient can affect the therapy that you're going to be doing later on - it's more of a foundation of learning how to have a patient interaction. We do a lot about that. We do a lot of things like behavior change and motivation, which are all incredibly important for PT, motivating people to do exercise and following precautions and things like that.
Samantha: From day one, even at Orientation, we talked about patient-centered care and evidence-based practice, and our whole undergraduate health psychology curriculum is based upon that. It's one of our classes here now, and it really has helped set us up for that and our success in that. Patient-centered care is half of your interaction of your treatment, and that's what the health psychology major did for us. We are able to talk to our patients. We are able to understand how they are feeling and try to communicate better with them, and I feel like we're at an advantage that way.
Mariah: I think MCPHS-Boston definitely emphasizes [interprofessional relations] in general, and specifically within health psychology. You have to be able to communicate clearly and in different ways with a lot of different healthcare professionals.
Keelin: It really taught us that there isn't a cookie-cutter approach to anything in healthcare. I started out in premed and we were learning this is how it is, and that's just kind of it, it was just black-and-white. Whereas with psychology, we learn about the gray area of everything. So, even if you're seeing two people who present with the same issue, they could completely take it in different ways, based on their past medical history, what their social history is like, what their socioeconomic status is, so we learned to take all of these things into account. So it's just kind of second nature for us, where some of our classmates have to think about all these other factors that might play into it.
Why did you choose to pursue physical therapy as a career path?
Caitlyn: In high school, I always thought about doing something in psychology. And then, when I took my first anatomy and physiology class, I just kind of fell in love with everything behind the human body. So, I started thinking about PT. Then I followed the Boston Marathon bombings really closely, and a few of the people who had amputations as a result, just because it kind of hit close to home. After hearing an interview at one point about how the physical therapists made a really big difference, not only in terms of physically supporting and reteaching people how to walk, but the motivation point of view, that's when I really made my decision.
Samantha: In high school, I had an injury, and I went to PT, and I started becoming interested in it. And then, I had a family member diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and I could see how debilitating it was over the years, so I became interested in the neurological aspect of it and how physical therapy is beneficial for that.
Keelin: Like Sam, I was a high school athlete that got hurt and went to PT. I had shoulder surgery after a lacrosse game, so when I had to go to PT three times a week for however many months, there were days I just didn't want to do it. I never wanted to play sports again. I was just scared of anyone going near my left side at all, and then my PT was encouraging me each time. He was like, "Listen, look at your progression from the game. You think this isn't a big deal, but you couldn't raise your arm above your hips before." So, I think a lot of it is being able to reinforce that and make sure your patients know that they're actually progressing. Like, "I know you're not where you want to be yet, but just keeping working with me, and you're going to get through," which is really nice.
Mariah: I was sure when I got there [that I wanted to do PT], and then because there were so many pathways there was the opportunity to go to med school or something like that. So, here and there, I'd be like, "Oh, maybe I do want to go to med school". But then I started taking more psychology courses, and I was like, "Oh, I really like the psychology". When we had health psychology, I just felt like it fit so well with PT, I was like, I think this is what I want to do now.
What advice do you have for students considering the Health Psychology: Physical Therapy Pathway program at MCPHS?
Caitlyn: I think one of the major advantages of starting at MCPHS and finishing at MCPHS is the networking. We're very close with Dr. Stacie Spencer, Director of the Health Psychology program. I'm not sure if I would be where I am professionally and personally if I didn't have her. Just the fact that you get a little bit more time within the same institution to meet everyone and do different research projects, like we've all helped different professors with different things along the way. Even though you make the switch to Worcester and you've got a whole bunch of fresh new faces, it just kind of helps you feel more comfortable, like this is my home. MCPHS is where I am. And I think having that, from beginning to end, is really nice.
Keelin: I applied to, like, ten schools, and none of them I really thought were going to give me the amount of personal attention that we get at MCPHS. Once we started the health psychology program, the entire department knew all of our names. We were the "PT Squad", so they knew what we wanted to do. They would always check in with us about things. All of our other professors took an interest in us and wanted to make sure we were going in the best route that we could. And even here [in Worcester], it's a small program. All of our professors still know who we are.
Caitlyn: Yeah. There are a lot of schools where your lectures are going to be 200, 300 people. And even though we have lectures that might have 100 people in them, you professor still knows who you are. You aren't your student ID number. You're not a grade in a book for them. You're a person.
Mariah: I highly recommend that if someone's serious about what they want to do, they think that they're pretty sure, MCPHS is a great place if you're ready. I definitely want to be a PT. I want to get out into the workforce as soon as possible and they really set you up. They have the same expectations for you throughout, so they really set us up with professionalism, and I think that being in the health psychology program with Dr. Spencer, I feel a lot more comfortable going out and talking to other professionals and asking, "I want to do this, and is there something that you can do to help me, like give me advice about that?" I just think the level of professionalism throughout is hard at first, but getting here now, I feel so much better talking to other professors or going out and being at clinicals. I feel more comfortable.
Samantha: The maturity level that's expected of us from freshman year is very different compared to the other schools in Boston. We have a full course load with 18 credits every semester. We're taking five classes and three labs versus people who are taking three classes a semester. It's very different, and I think that helped us come to this graduate level program where we're still doing the same thing, we have 18 credits, and it was a very easy transition for us in that way, too. But you have to be mature, you have to be on top of everything. You have to have all your organizational skills, and that just sets you up for professionalism in the future with your career when you have to organize everything else, too.
Ready to become part of the "PT Squad"? The Health Psychology: Physical Therapy Pathway program is a 3 + 3 program allowing students to earn a combined bachelor of science and Doctor of Physical Therapy in an accelerated six years.