The University of Central Arkansas (UCA) Department of Physical Therapy has been without question the leader in physical therapy education in Arkansas since its inception. UCA is the only institution of higher education in Arkansas that offers both the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Physical Therapy, and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degrees. In addition, the vast majority of Arkansas’s 1,797 licensed physical therapists graduated from UCA. However, UCA’s Department of Physical Therapy sprang from humble beginnings, admitting only 16 students annually during its first five years of operation.

The first director of physical therapy, Mr. Joe Finnell, came to State College of Arkansas (now UCA) from the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. Finnell, whose first year salary was $12,500, served as chair from 1970 to 1979. He was first contacted about starting a physical therapy program in Arkansas in 1968. Over the next two years, Finnell made several trips to Arkansas to have input on setting up a cooperative agreement between UCA and Arkansas Baptist Medical Center (ABMC). In the early years, and until 1987, the program was located in Little Rock on the Baptist Hospital campus. Students were also educated at the Memorial Hospital in North Little Rock, which was also part of the Baptist Medical Center System. Finnell stated in an unpublished paper, "It was necessary to point out that hospital based programs were no longer being approved by the APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) and that PT (physical therapy) educational programs needed to be administratively controlled by a medical school or college/university."

An article from the October 23, 1970 Echo (UCA student newspaper), quoted Finnell, as saying, "This program is totally unique to any college or university in the state at present. This is a wide open field. At present there are only about 37 licensed physical therapists in the state."

According to the 1971-1972 Undergraduate Bulletin, the requirements to enter the 15-month program were: "Completion of a minimum of 94 semester hours with a minimum grade point average of 2.0 (C)." Students were required to complete the general education requirements in addition to 12 hours of biology, 6-8 hours of chemistry, and 6-8 hours of physics. Students were urged to add additional courses in the sciences for their 26-30 hours of electives. Students who had already completed a baccalaureate degree could apply for the program, provided they had satisfied the requirements listed above.

By March 16, 1971, 25 students had applied for admission into the new program which initially accepted only 16 students annually. The first 16 students to enter the 15-month physical therapy program did so on June 9, 1971, the date observed at the time as the official beginning of the program. The start of the new physical therapy program turned into quite a media event and was covered by the local television stations.

The first students to enter UCA’s physical therapy program came from seven states that were spread across the country. Seven students were from Arkansas, three from Montana, two from Mississippi, one each from California, Louisiana, Washington state and Utah.

In an article from "Here’s The Buzz," a newsletter published by the Department of Physical Therapy in the fall of 1971, were these comments, "Of course, we are prejudiced but we honestly feel that the new group of students are representative of all that is good in the youth of our country. One hears so much of the "bad," but not nearly enough about the good. If the law of averages is indicative of the percentage of "the good," our 16 students prove that the good overshadows the bad. It is also encouraging to note that physical therapy is drawing such responsible, bright, and motivated young people…The students are representative of different sections of the country. It is reassuring to see how well youth adjusts to new surroundings and new associates. After only two weeks of association they appear as a large family working toward a mutual goal."

In 2012, 56 students are admitted each year as candidates for the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Due to far fewer students applying for the Ph.D., there is no maximum cap for that program. The Department of Physical Therapy is housed in its own building on the UCA campus and is accredited by The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). 

The first doctorate offered at UCA was the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Physical Therapy. Because it is known as the Doctor of Philosophy doesn’t mean the discipline or field of study is necessarily in philosophy. The Ph.D. is a research degree and according to "The Doctor of Philosophy Degree: A Policy Statement" by the Council of Graduate Schools, "The Doctor of Philosophy degree is the highest academic degree granted by North American universities. It is a research degree and is to be distinguished from other doctorates such as the M.D., J.D., or Ed.D. degrees, which are designed for professional training or which focus on applied rather than basic research."

In addition to the Ph.D., the UCA Department of Physical Therapy also offers the aforementioned Doctor of Physical Therapy degree (DPT). The DPT is the degree that the vast majority of UCA physical therapy majors seek and is the degree of choice for practice in the field of physical therapy.

According to Dr. Nancy Reese, Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, "UCA was the sixteenth program in the United States to offer the Doctor of Physical Therapy. At that time (1999) there were 208 programs nationwide and almost all programs are going in that direction."

The Arkansas Department of Higher Education gave the approval for UCA to offer the Ph.D. in physical therapy in September 1997, and the first Ph.D. students were enrolled during the first summer session of 2000. The DPT was approved by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education on April 23, 1999, and first offered by UCA in the fall of 2000.

When asked what a physical therapist does, Dr. Reese stated, "Physical therapists (PTs) are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility - in many cases without expensive surgery and often reducing the need for long-term use of prescription medications and their side effects."

There have been four chairs of the Department of Physical Therapy. Mr. Joe Finnell was chair from 1970 to 1979 and was succeeded by Ms. Pat Grantham, who served briefly as chair from 1979 to 1980. Ms. Grantham was succeeded by Dr. Venita Lovelace-Chandler who had a long tenure and served from 1980 to 2003. The current chair, Dr. Nancy Reese, became chair in 2004. In 2012, there were 15 faculty members and only one did not have a doctor’s degree.

Students who apply for entrance into UCA’s physical therapy program must have a bachelor’s degree (in any field) and meet the prerequisite requirements. Additionally, applicants must have a minimum cumulative GPA (grade point average) of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale as well as a 3.0 in their science courses. Applicants must also have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), but there is no minimum required score for the GRE.

In regard to the GRE and other requirements for applicants, Dr. Reese stated, "We don’t have a minimum score because the GRE recommends that you don’t use that as an eliminator and we don’t use it as an eliminator. And, they have to have observed for at least 45 clock hours in three different physical therapy settings. We have certain prerequisite courses that they have to have taken. They must have eight hours of college chemistry, eight hours of physics, eight hours of anatomy and physiology, an introductory biology course, an upper division biology course, an introductory psychology course and a psychology elective, a statistics course and medical terminology."

Due to competition among students for entrance into the program, there are far more students that apply than can be admitted. Typically, 140 to 150 students a year apply for entrance into the DPT program and 56 are admitted annually. All course work takes place on the UCA campus, but the clinical portion takes place in a variety of locations.

The DPT is a 124-hour program that is completed over a three-year period. According to Dr. Reese, "The students take both didactic courses and clinical courses. The clinical component total is 43 weeks; of those three-years, 43 weeks of that is spent in the clinical setting. There are five different clinical settings that the students attend, so that’s five different internships. They might occur in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, Oklahoma, in a variety of different states." When asked if the student was responsible for arranging for an internship, Dr. Reese stated, "No, we have contracts with these clinical sites. These are places that our director of clinical education has vetted. She has looked into these places and gone to visit them. She has determined they are appropriate for our students and we set up a contract with those places."

UCA also has a residency in Pediatric Physical Therapy, something only found at seven other institutions in the United States. According to Dr. Reese, "When we started this residency it was the second pediatric residency in the United States. There are eight institutions that have a residency in pediatrics. This residency is in collaboration with Arkansas Children’s Hospital and with a pediatric private practice, Allied Therapy. We have two slots each year for residents and these are DPT graduates. We receive applications from all over the United States for those two slots and we receive five applications for each slot. The applicants come from universities across the United States including Emory University, Duke University, and Washington University. The residents spend a year here and Dr. Misty Booth is our Residency Coordinator. She supervises their experience which includes clinical practice, research and teaching. Residencies are designed to prepare physical therapists to take the board certification examination in that area."

A graduate of UCA’s DPT program is Dr. Leah Lowe, who received her degree in 2006. When asked why she majored in physical therapy, Dr. Lowe stated, "I knew I wanted to do something medically related. I chose physical therapy after shadowing a physical therapist and saw how much time they were able to spend with each of their patients. My Dad told me he had an experience where a physical therapist had an opportunity to make or break his recovery, and I saw how important physical therapy can be to a person recovering from a number of conditions."

Dr. Lowe is employed by Pediatrics Plus Therapy Services in Conway. Her area of practice deals exclusively with children ages 0 to 21 years. Asked why she specialized in pediatrics she stated, "I started out working in an adult outpatient setting and I loved that. But, the need for flexibility and starting a family led me to Pediatrics Plus and I have loved it ever since." Dr. Lowe is also pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy, and when asked why she wanted both doctorates, she stated, "I love my profession, I love physical therapy and the Ph.D. will allow me to continue my clinical practice, contribute to research to further our profession and serve our patients. It will also give me the opportunity to potentially teach and help graduate more physical therapists who can strengthen our profession."

When asked about the UCA Physical Therapy faculty, Dr. Lowe was very complimentary and stated, "I think that the number one attribute is that they collectively bring huge variety and backgrounds to their students. They have a variety of backgrounds and experiences and we get a view into the profession from a lot of different perspectives which allows us to graduate as more well-rounded physical therapists."

Kane Moix, a student from Rogers, Arkansas, is a candidate for the DPT degree and is scheduled to graduate in August 2013. When asked why he majored in physical therapy, he stated, "When I was a senior in high school I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) playing basketball and I had to go through the rehabilitation process. During that process I realized this could be something I could see myself doing, so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise." Moix said he was completely healed from his injury and stated, "I play intramural sports. I run and last weekend I ran a 12-mile outdoor obstacle course race and I do everything that I did previously. That’s why I wanted to do physical therapy because I realized after my surgery I couldn’t do anything. I realize what a difference physical therapists can make in people’s lives and help them get back to what they want to do with their lives."

Moix said he wishes to practice in the central Arkansas area once he completes his education. When asked about UCA’s Physical Therapy faculty, he stated, "I feel like we have an incredible faculty for many reasons. They are incredibly diverse. We have people that do cardiopulmonary, pediatrics, neuroscience, orthopedics and spinal cord injury. Our teachers get along great, but they know all different kinds of areas. So we are able to take their expertise from all different areas and funnel them together to get the most experience that we can. I would not trade our faculty for anything else. From what we hear when we go to other rotations, UCA students are very well prepared."

Robyn Smith, a student from Lubbock, Texas, is also a candidate for the DPT degree and is scheduled to graduate in August 2013. When asked why she majored in physical therapy, she stated, "I had personally been a patient of physical therapy and multiple family members had gone through physical therapy. I always liked the environment; I liked the clinical setting and the interaction between the therapist and the patient as well as the patients with each other. From a personal stand point, I played sports and I was injured and the ability to play sports was taken away. With physical therapy I was able to return to athletic competition. I enjoy the process of helping people overcome physical challenges."

Smith, a former high school and college volleyball player, said she suffered a torn medial meniscus on each knee and both knee surgeries were arthroscopic procedures. She had physical therapy after both surgeries and is back to normal with no other problems. Smith said she had observed physical therapists working with her mother who had total knee replacement on one knee. Smith stated, "I had family members who had been treated by physical therapists and my mother had a total knee replacement. I went with her during her physical therapy treatments in the hospital and also during outpatient settings, and observed the physical therapist as they treated my mother."

Smith said she was interested in working at a pediatrics clinic after she graduates. She stated, "Right now I want to work with pediatrics. I enjoy the variety of settings and therapeutic options in pediatrics. Therapeutic options include school settings, aquatic therapy, hippotherapy and clinical settings in hospitals."

Author’s Note: Sources for this article include The Echo, an unpublished paper by Joe Finnell, M99-01 Official Records of UCA held by UCA Archives, Minutes of the UCA Board of Trustees, "The Doctor of Philosophy Degree: A Policy Statement" by the Council of Graduate Schools, Dr. Nancy Reese, UCA Undergraduate Bulletins, "Here’s The Buzz," a newsletter published by the Department of Physical Therapy in the fall of 1971, Dr. Leah Lowe, Kane Moix and Robyn Smith.