Physical Therapy: Tradition Meets Progress

The PT department — with half its faculty graduates of the program — is one of the College’s shining stars.   by Greg Ryan ’08

When Terri Hoppenrath ’89 was a physical therapy student at IC, Andrew Robinson had a reputation as the toughest professor in a physical therapy department known for its academic rigor. The class Robinson taught was among the most difficult in the program to begin with, and the exacting professor didn’t make it any easier. “He was a great instructor, but we didn’t like him because he gave us pop quizzes,” Hoppenrath laughs. “That meant you had to show up for class!”

In spring 2007 Hoppenrath found herself back in the same course, but this time as its instructor; she had returned to the College as a physical therapy professor in 2003. Other faculty members were required to assist the teacher during lab sessions, and so, 20 years after he had made her work so hard to do well on his exams, Hoppenrath again shared a classroom with Robinson — but the pupil had become the master. And this time the professor had a little more sympathy for her students. “I do not,” says Hoppenrath, “give pop quizzes!”

Such instances of academic déjà vu are not uncommon among the physical therapy faculty on campus. More than half of the full-time professors on staff — 10 of 19 — are IC graduates. By comparison, a quarter of speech-language pathology and audiology faculty graduated from the College, and two members of the occupational therapy staff are IC alumni. The physical therapy program’s nearest competitor, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, has only 5 alumni on its 17-member faculty (Northeastern University, another competitor, is a rarity: its PT department tops IC’s, with 12 alumni among 17 faculty members). When you factor in the low turnover rate among physical therapy faculty at the College, the influence IC grads have had on the program that groomed them is indelible.

The faculty members see their IC academic background as an undeniable strength. “I feel a connection to the students, because I was there,” says Charles Ciccone ’75, who has taught at the College for 25 years. Kathleen Buccieri ’82, a professor in the department’s Rochester program since 1998, says a major advantage lies in graduates’ knowledge of the curriculum. “It’s helpful,” she says, “for keeping a larger perspective on what the students are learning now.” Michael Pagliarulo, the department chair, agrees with Ciccone’s and Buccieri’s assertion that the high percentage of alumni among the faculty has brought considerable benefits to the program. “They know the intensity of the program, because they’ve experienced it themselves,” he says. “They wanted to come back.”

The professors’ reasons for returning to South Hill range from the practical (“I was looking for a position, and this position was available,” says Ernest Nalette ’72, who joined the Rochester program in 1998 as its director) to the nostalgic (“I had always felt this magnetic course to come back to Ithaca,” says Barb Belyea ’82,  M.S. ’94, whose master’s degree is from the Park School and who has been on the faculty for 19 years). But they didn’t simply switch their graduation gowns for professors’ garb. Each of the IC grads on the faculty performed clinical work before coming back to the College, in places as close as Cornell and as far away as Georgia.

Although 14 years separate the earliest and most recent graduates, there are a surprising number of personal connections between individual faculty members. Hoppenrath and Hilary Greenberger ’89 (an IC professor since 1992) were best friends as undergrads and roomed together in the now-defunct Bronx program, where PT majors spent their senior year before the Rochester program was established in 1991. Ciccone and Stephen Lahr ’75 (who came back to IC eight years after Ciccone, in 1990), were lab partners in several PT classes. The connections aren’t limited to campus, either. Hoppenrath, who grew up in Ithaca, and Chris McNamara ’81 (on the faculty since 1991), a Syracuse native, competed against one another at swimming events as teenagers. Greenberger and McNamara worked together at a private practice in Ithaca before either became an educator. One connection really hit home for Hoppenrath and Lahr. While flipping through the staff directory during one of her first days on the job, she noticed Lahr’s address looked familiar: he lived in her childhood home. Curtains that Hoppenrath’s mother had sewn still hang in Lahr’s basement.

When Hoppenrath and Greenberger, two of the youngest faculty members, were undergraduates, four of the current faculty members (including Ciccone) were teaching at the College. Both Hoppenrath and Greenberger had graduated with a degree in something other than physical therapy during their first stint in college, and came back to school in their late 20s to get a second undergraduate degree in Ithaca’s PT program. The two quickly became “attached at the hip,” they say, and threw themselves into their studies, sneaking into empty classrooms at night to use the blackboards. “We would challenge each other,” Hoppenrath recalls.  “‘Follow the median nerve from the brachial plexus to the end — go!’ And we’d see who could do it the fastest.”

Not all of the PT alumni faculty graduated from IC with a physical therapy degree. McNamara majored in physical education, and Nicholas Quarrier ’76 graduated with a biology degree. Neither took any PT classes at Ithaca, although McNamara knew PT majors as teammates on the College swim team who “were studying all the time.” (Quarrier concurs: “Every night I went to study, the library was just full of them.”)

McNamara and Quarrier took winding roads back to South Hill. McNamara taught adaptive physical education in the Ithaca school district after she graduated, and developed an interest in physical therapy through PT colleagues. She went to Upstate Medical University to get her PT degree and worked as a clinician at Cornell and an adjunct instructor at IC for more than a decade before becoming a full-time professor at IC. Quarrier graduated from Ithaca and became a cancer researcher at Sloan-Kettering in New York City a few years before switching careers. He earned his physical therapy degree from NYU, but knew his training was no match for an Ithaca PT student’s. “Every internship I went on, I thought, ‘Are there any Ithaca College students here? I hope not, because they know too much,’ ” he says.

Of course, much has changed since these faculty were students. The field has become more interdisciplinary and more technological, and the IC PT program has adapted along with it. When the 10 IC faculty grads were students, the physical therapy degree was a four-year undergraduate program, with the final year taking place at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Bronx Municipal Hospital Center. Now, students participating in the doctoral program (initiated in 2005) study for six years, with the final year taking place in Rochester, where the off-campus center relocated in 1991 for what became a master’s program from 1994 until the D.P.T. program replaced it.

Gone, too, are many of the graduates’ former professors. In fact, these alumni faculty have replaced the very stalwarts — George Hearn, Bob Grant, and Bob Jenkins, to name a few the graduates consistently bring up — who led the program for so many years and trained them as physical therapists. Yet the alumni say they’re vigilant in not allowing tradition to unnecessarily trump progress. “We’re always trying to make the program better,” says Karen Nolan ’80, who joined the Rochester staff in 1997. They must constantly keep up with advances in technology, both in the field and in the classroom, that their predecessors did not have. Many of the professors feel they are struggling to keep pace with changes in how students communicate with each other. “Maybe if we could text-message students the information,” says Hoppenrath, “they would get it better.”

Some of the faculty have heard criticism from other schools that the program is too Ithaca-centric. But Pagliarulo says the department conducts open, national searches when a faculty position opens up, and that in many instances Ithaca grads are simply the most qualified candidates out there. “I see it as the best of both worlds,” McNamara says. “You’re coming from a common college experience, whether it was in physical therapy or not, but then you have a diverse actual PT experience.” The non-alumni faculty will sometimes joke about putting a moratorium on hiring new IC grads, but always in good fun. “We view ourselves as a faculty,” Ciccone adds, “not faculty who graduated from the program versus those who didn’t. We’re a cohesive unit.”

Still, there’s no denying the connection that program grads can share with students. The professors say they discuss their experiences at IC with their students every semester. “I tell students I sat in the back of the class in Textor,” says Lahr, “and that those indentations on the wall were made by my head.”

Ciccone never thought he’d spend the better part of three decades as a professor on South Hill. “When you’re in college, you look at professors and say, ‘No way,’ ” he says. “Looking back in retrospect, you think, Wow, this is really cool. I love this job.”

For their part, students appreciate the background they share with the alumni faculty. “I think it’s great,” says Shane Haman ’09, “because they understand the stresses and excitement behind Ithaca’s program.” Hamman says he can envision himself returning to the College as a professor someday.