Turning Pro

Brenau plans to start doctorates in physical therapy and occupational therapy in the next two years. In the process it will invest $6.5 million to round out its collection of professionally oriented graduate health care programs. The lineup of clinical doctorates in nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy, coupled with other health-related master’s-level programs, also sets Brenau apart from other institutions – even the big ones.
Performance Physical Therapy
Physical therapist James Sechrist works with Janice Guiden in foreground at Performance Physical Therapy. While Dr. Barney Poole speaks with physical therapist Ingrid Anderson and patient Patricia Whidden. photo by Louie Favorite

During the past two years Brenau sophomore Devony Hemingway grew quite familiar with physical therapy. The lifelong athlete tore both of her ACLs before she even made it through her first year of college.

The first anterior cruciate ligament tear, to her left knee, occurred during a basketball game for her High Point, N.C., high school. About a year later – in volleyball practice the day after her first game as a Brenau Golden Tiger – she tore the ligament in her right knee.

The injuries, surgeries and months spent in rehab brought Hemingway a few understandable emotions: the frustration of facing a long road to recovery, the reward of bending her knee for the first time in three months, the fear she felt when her physical therapist wanted her to practice jumping. And, in a classic what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger epiphany, she saw with clarity a great career path ahead of her. That is why she felt “really, really excited” when she heard that Brenau planned to begin offering a doctorate in physical therapy as early as 2014. Because of her educational experience at Brenau thus far, the Brenau health sciences major’s seeking an advanced degree in physical therapy definitely moved to the top of her aspirations list.

“Brenau will be a great place for graduate school in physical therapy,” she says. “You get that personal one-on-one attention. The teachers really want to see you succeed. Other students are willing to help you. We all feel like family here. That’s why I’d want to stay at Brenau.”

Three years ago the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools opened the pathway for Hemingway and others who want careers in health professions like physical therapy. It approved Brenau’s stepping up in classification to a doctoral degree-granting institution. The academic accrediting agency for the southeastern United States, however, left it to Brenau, for the most part, in how it would achieve the transformation. The first doctoral program Brenau launched was in nursing, but the second and third could have been in, say, education and English literature.

University trustees, however, sealed the deal: the board first approved the administration’s plans to convert the government-owned Georgia Mountains Center convention facility into a home for a doctoral program in physical therapy with build-out scheduled to begin in January 2013. Then, at its fall meeting, the board authorized the university to move forward with a doctorate in occupational therapy.


Performance Physical Therapy
Dr. Barney Poole, president of the Physical Therapy Association of Georgia, says Brenau’s approach not only taps into a fast-growing, under-served market, but also provides a collaborating, multi-disciplinary approach. photo by Louie Favorite

What that means, say Brenau President Ed Schrader, is that Brenau has set a firm course to be a leading provider of health care professional preparation in the Southeast. Although many institutions, including large state and private research universities as well as schools Brenau aspires to be like, may offer doctorates in one or two of the health care disciplines, they do not offer all three. Add to that some of Brenau’s other health-related professional programs – including its master’s in applied gerontology, clinical psychology, a physician assistant program, the M.B.A. in health care administration, and other graduate degrees in nursing and nursing administration – and the term “unique,” when applied to Brenau, takes on weighty significance.

“We are moving forward,” Trustees Chairman Pete Miller told fellow board members Nov. 2.
“This is not a proposal. This is happening.”

Hurdles remain, not the least of which is SACS. In late 2010 SACS classified Brenau as a Level V institution, which means Brenau, previously restricted to offering only master’s degrees, can now offer up to three doctorates. Any more than that and the university must apply for admission into the organization’s highest classification, Level VI, where schools like Emory, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia reside. However, the Commission on College, which oversees higher education for SACS, must approve each new program within that framework. Brenau admitted its first doctoral candidates in 2011 for the approved Doctor of Nursing Programs. Brenau has initiated steps for application and approval for the physical therapy and occupational therapy doctorates. Assuming all goes well, it could admit physical therapy and OT doctoral candidates in 2013-14.

Brenau holds another ace in the hole in its uniqueness claim, says Schrader: It is also still Brenau. The emphasis on doctoral-level health professions preparation will require some administrative realignment for efficiency and sharper focus. All the related programs will reside in the College of Health Sciences, built from the revamped College of Health & Science.

“Brenau earned its reputation as an institution that cares about people and pays attention to individual students,” says Schrader. “That was true when we started in 1878 as a Women’s College with just a handful of undergraduates and that remains true as we build toward a university of women and men that is 5,000 students strong. We like to say that our graduate professional preparation programs are informed by the liberal arts, but they are also molded by our attention to each of our students. Paying attention to individuals is a great philosophy to impart to those preparing for health care professions. Sure, it’s great to say that we offer more programs than a school that is three times our size or four times our size. But having big school ideas does not mean you have to have an impersonal big school mentality.”

The $6.5 Million Investment

Brenau moved into the city-owned Georgia Mountains Center facility officially on Dec. 15. Before that, however, the university and its trustees committed to a $6.5 million spending program to renovate the building and equip it as the home for physical therapy and other health care-related programs in what now is the Brenau Downtown Center.

The planned programs for the facility, which is just five blocks from Brenau’s front lawn in Gainesville, will grow to between 400 and 700 students and about 100 to 150 faculty and staff – a win-win proposition for the university and the community. “It’s not every day that a city can bring a university into its downtown,” says Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett. “I think it will be great for the city.”

Brenau year-round occupancy helps Gainesville’s city government eliminate about $400,000 from its operational budget. The building opened in the 1980s for concerts, small conventions and trade shows, and other programs. But larger, more modern facilities that are available nearby have become more attractive. Although the city waived Brenau’s rent payments for the first half of the 10-year lease (renewable for 50 years), the deal reduces red ink for Gainesville. Mountains Center employees, for starters, became Brenau employees. Brenau planned to begin renovations within the first month of 2013 to convert the 18,000-square foot arena into classrooms, labs and offices for its physical therapy program – the first in some $6.5 million of planned spending.

Brenau administrators estimate the program will become revenue positive in just a few years and will ultimately have about $40 million a year in economic impact. The university’s fiscally conservative trustees authorized some $3 million in borrowing to keep the project on track as fundraising activities continue.

Why PT?

Jumping, the second-nature skill for basketball and volleyball players, was the part of her rehabilitation that frightened the injured Devony Hemingway the most.

“I just had no idea what would happen. Was I going to bust my ACL again?” she recalls. But the trust Hemingway put in her physical therapist gave her courage. From calmly saying “You can do it,” to providing professional care that built strength and helped healing.

“It was such a big deal for me,” she said. “That’s what really made me want to pursue physical therapy as a career.”

But PT is more than cheerleading

For students like Hemingway, it’s a good time to be interested in physical therapy. Practitioners in the field are some of the most in-demand professionals in U.S. health care.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment of physical therapists to increase 39 percent by 2020, much faster than the 24 percent growth forecast for physicians and surgeons and the 14 percent growth projected for all American occupations. With overall rates still well above 7 percent at this writing, physical therapists have a current unemployment rate of 0.2 percent, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. The median salary also in 2010 was is more than $76,000, according to BLS data.

The need for physical therapists is likely to only increase as the U.S. health care system faces the national shortage of physicians long predicted by health care researchers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects a 7 percent growth in the physician supply in the next 10 years, compared with a 36 percent boost in the numbers of Americans over age 65. Researchers predict that this population of aging Baby Boomers will live longer and will be more active than previous generations, making them more likely to need medical care and rehabilitation for the conditions of older age: pain, injuries, neurological disorders and surgeries, to name a few.

Dr. R. M. “Barney” Poole, president of the Physical Therapy Association of Georgia and a private-practice physical therapist in Stockbridge, says Baby Boomers are also different consumers of health care than their parents were.

“I think you’ll find that consumers of the Boomer generation will be a little savvier in terms of how they make their health care choices. They will ask more questions and explore other treatment options like physical therapy,” Poole says. “We are going to be very much in demand as an alternative to going to a physician.”

As the Affordable Care Act takes effect in 2014, millions of people who were once uninsured will be seeking medical care. Poole says Brenau is on the right track in its health care professions expansion because physical therapy, among other disciplines, offers an economic enticement to these and other consumers – a cheaper, more efficient entry into the health care system. All of this, Poole adds, is good news for people who plan to pursue careers in physical therapy – and schools that plan to teach them.

“I think students and new graduates should be very encouraged by the prospects in this field,” he says.


The potential for physical therapy growth not only will be good for future graduates, but will also be good for Brenau. The school’s strategic plan calls for the university’s enrollment to surpass 5,000 students by 2025, growth that will come primarily from expanding the current population of about 1,000 graduate students. Gale Starich, dean of the College of Health Sciences and founding dean of the graduate school, says the field of physical therapy stood out as a natural way for Brenau to meet its goal.

“That was the first thing we looked at: what is the demand of this career and what is the interest level,” Starich says. “Right now, there are a lot of good students out there who aren’t able to get into the existing physical therapy programs.”

Brenau Downtown Center Rending
Architect Garland Reynolds’ and Brenau Design Director Christie Gregory’s concept for a facelift and possible signage at the new Brenau Downtown Center on one of Gainesville’s heaviest-trafficked thoroughfares.

The university has had success focusing on the health sciences in recent years. Master’s and doctoral degree programs in nursing, master’s degrees in clinical counseling psychology and applied gerontology, and a nationally ranked master’s degree program in occupational therapy have attracted high-caliber students in the past decade and have heightened Brenau’s reputation as a respected center for the health sciences.

“It’s been just ear-popping growth,” Starich says. “The main reason for that is that health care is booming nationwide. These are all high-need professions.”

The DPT program will benefit from the academic infrastructure established by Brenau’s other graduate health sciences programs – basic science classes such as anatomy and kinesiology and faculty to teach them, as well as strong clinical partnerships in the community where students can get the field experience they need to graduate.

Barbara Schell, associate dean of the College of Health Sciences and the founder of the occupational therapy program, says the DPT program will fit naturally in the clinical community around Gainesville and northern Georgia.

“We see ourselves in what we call a community of practice, made up of our students, faculty, and clinical colleagues in the area,” she says. “We’re always looking for programs that will create synergy in that community.”

Starich and Schell seek heightened synergy between future DPT students and students in the occupational therapy program, which Brenau hopes will also launch a doctoral degree track in the fall of 2013. Once both programs are up and running, the students will take many classes together and collaborate on research.

Starich says making Brenau’s health sciences a multidisciplinary endeavor will be vital to the education and future success of graduates. It also will be a unique opportunity for Brenau to distinguish itself from other schools with health science programs.

“Multidisciplinary practice and inter-professional education – that’s the future of health care in this country. We have to get our health care professionals working together better to improve care,” Starich says. “We’d like to be a leader in that.”

Poole agrees that Brenau’s approach to collaboration between its programs is a major plus for the university.

“I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from occupational therapists by working with them in the past,” he says. “To be able to share that knowledge between students is going to be a plus.”

Performance Physical Therapy
Patient Janice Guiden does an exercise at Performance Physical Therapy in Stockbridge, Ga.


When Brenau opens its DPT program, it will join about 200 other colleges and universities around the country that offer the degree, which is becoming the educational requirement for practicing in the field. Indeed, Brenau’s program will be the seventh to open in Georgia alone. But Brenau’s program will be able to offer qualities that other universities cannot, says Nancy Krippel, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

“There is space for Brenau in the physical therapy landscape,” Krippel says. “I think we can bring something to the conversation that perhaps a larger university cannot.”

With an enrollment of almost 2,800 students, Brenau is one of Georgia’s smaller universities. When it begins, the three-year DPT program would add about 150 students in a traditional day program. Once the program gets underway, health sciences leadership hopes to expand it to another 150 students by offering a weekend program, designed to appeal to working professionals seeking a DPT degree. Brenau would be the first university in the Southeast to offer a DPT degree with this alternative model.

Schell says this model has been very successful for the occupational therapy master’s degree program, which has offered day and weekend programs for the past several years.

“That really is a boon for working people,” she says. “It’s something that makes us unique.”


Many of Brenau’s leaders say the school is also unique in its mission of putting students first. Brenau’s focus on teaching rather than research means students don’t take a back seat to the faculty’s pursuit of grants, funding and publication. Schell notes that students who come from other institutions are often amazed at the level of attention they receive from Brenau’s faculty.

“When the institution’s primary mission is research, sometimes the ability to really be taught goes down. It may have some expert faculty, but they are preoccupied writing research grants,” Schell says. “At Brenau, you are taught by the experts, and students are their priority.”

Physical Therapy ExercisesIt is not just how they’re taught, but what they learn. Brenau is based on a liberal arts curriculum, a value that extends even into science-oriented profession-specific graduate studies, unlike many other graduate programs. For good reason – research has shown that health care practitioners with liberal arts backgrounds are more balanced professionals and that liberal arts graduates tend to be more successful after graduation. Starich says this not only makes Brenau’s curriculum extraordinary, but also it makes the university’s graduates a special kind of health care professional.

“People with liberal arts backgrounds have a broader view of the world, which is becoming more necessary in the health care fields,” she says. “America is becoming a lot more diverse. We will equip our students to be accepting and supportive of people and patients of all cultures.”

Krippel added that these qualities make Brenau an ideal institution to support programs for creating a broader array of health care professionals, who must establish trust and a personal connection with patients.

“Brenau’s ethos is about relationships, and all the health sciences programs we have are based in nurturing that relationship between the practitioner and the patient,” Krippel says. “That’s why this all makes more sense for Brenau.”

“We always look for ways in which we can provide our students with the opportunities to do well and to do good,” she says. “It’s just who we are here.”

– Decatur, Ga.-based freelance writer Carrie Gann previously worked as a health reporter and researcher for ABCNews.com and CNN.

2 Responses to “Turning Pro”
  1. Altovise White says:

    I am earning my bachelor’s in Health Science here at Brenau. I am so excited about the new DPT program. As a Massage Therapist, PT would allow me to advance my career and do what I love. Being a part of a great school will not only allow me to complete my bachelor’s degree but also complete my doctorate in Physical Therapy. So excited!

  2. These programs Brenau offer are fantastic. It’s a good news for students looking to pursue health care studies. Keep it up and more power!

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