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Innovation helps international students earn Doctor of Physical Therapy

2018-11-12-ppDPT students
Physical therapists Amir Davijani and Junghwan "Paul" Bang are members of the post-professional Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of North Georgia. Davijani, who worked for years as a physical therapist in Iran, is taking the class to earn his doctoral degree and then take the exam to become a licensed physical therapist here. Bang moved to Georgia from South Korea to take the course and earn his doctoral degree.

For 30 years, Amir Davijani worked as physical therapist and lecturer on the subject at an Iranian university. But when he and his wife moved to the United States to be closer to their sons, his education and experience did not translate completely.

Physical therapists in the United States are required to have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree before taking the mandatory National Physical Therapy Examination to become licensed. Davijani did not have a DPT degree. But when he tried to enroll into a transitional program at other universities to earn a doctoral degree, he ran into another wall.

"They always asked me if I had a license to get into a transitional program," Davijani said. "Because I didn't have a license (in the U.S.), I couldn't take the courses. And because I couldn't take the courses, I couldn’t get the DPT and the license."

This Catch-22 scenario is common for foreign physical therapists who have relocated or want to move to the United States. More than a year ago, the University of North Georgia (UNG) found a solution.

UNG's Department of Physical Therapy started a post-professional DPT degree (ppDPT) as an extension of the current DPT program. It is designed to help international students and non-doctoral professionals elevate their own practice abroad or address certain educational gaps required for licensure application in the United States. The yearlong cohort-style ppDPT program at UNG is the only one in the South, said Dr. Mohammad "Reza" Nourbakhsh, professor of physical therapy at UNG.

"We designed this innovative program that would accept professionals and international students, who don't have a license to practice in the U.S.," Nourbakhsh said.

It appears to be working. The program's first cohort started this fall with six students. Five are international students — three from Iran and two from South Korea — while one is Marietta, Georgia, resident Amir Davijani, who is originally from Iran. The 58-year-old heard about the program from Nourbakhsh — both earned bachelor's degrees at the same university in Iran — and registered for the course.

A South Korean native, Junghwan "Paul" Bang learned about the program through Dr. Eunse Park, assistant professor of physical therapy at UNG. Both men are part of an online community of physical therapists from South Korea.

Bang, 33, said he was looking for a ppDPT program in the U.S., especially since schools in South Korea only offer a bachelor's degree for physical therapy. When he learned of UNG's program, Bang and his pregnant wife moved to Cumming, Georgia, more than two months ago, where he could take the course and earn his doctoral degree.

"As a physical therapist in South Korea, we have a limited scope of practices, and we have differences in healthcare assistance in society," Bang said. "I wanted to have experience as a professional physical therapist in the U.S. to contribute more in my community in the future."

He will not be the only South Korea native taking advantage of the ppDPT program. Earlier this year, UNG signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Youngsan University in Busan, South Korea to create an educational pipeline between the two schools allowing South Korean students to have easier access to the ppDPT program and the potential for a faculty and student exchange program.

A delegation from Youngsan is scheduled to visit UNG in November to view the facilities and the program. Park helped link the two institutions through his connections with Youngsan.

Through the MOU, Park said Youngsan students will have the opportunity to enroll in the ppDPT program, while UNG students learn about South Korean culture first-hand from the international students.

The exchange put UNG's ppDPT program on the forefront of the international stage.

"The MOU is just the starting point of UNG extending to the world," Park said. "If UNG makes more programs and exchanges and provides resources to other countries, it helps with the reputation, diversity and service of residents of the United States at the same time."

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