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An intentional approach to DEI can make all the difference

Winston Salem State University (WSSU) is a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) where 85-90% of the undergraduate student body is from a historically-marginalized racial group, but their graduate programs are only about 30% diverse.  “I knew we had to get to work on improving our approach to DEI,” says Judy Foxworth, PT, PhD who has been a faculty member at WSSU for 23 years and became the DPT chair in 2022.  Their experience provides great lessons for all programs.

According to the January 2022 Institutional Profile Survey, many DPT programs would like to build upon their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

  • Fifty-eight percent (58%) feel they have at least some room to improve to include DEI measurable outcomes in their strategic plan. 
  • Fifty percent (50%) note that they could better act upon collected data to improve the culture for inclusivity.
  • Forty-eight percent (48%) report they could better assess non-academic obstacles to degree completion.
  • Forty-four percent (44%) could improve in acting upon their own data to increase diversity in their student body.

Examine your internal data & opportunities 

WSSU is a small, state school with very limited marketing dollars and no diversity scholarship money.  They are trying to fundraise, but even with a lean budget, their admissions committee – composed of one staff person who is DEI-certified and 4 faculty members – started exploring how to foster more DEI in their recruitment and admissions.  

“Our faculty started meeting a lot more to figure out exactly how we can do better,” says Foxworth.  The DPT department took a hard look at their own practices, data and culture.  

  • They conducted interviews and surveys with current students.
  • They combed the research literature for examples of best practices, recognizing that each institution’s mission, size, budget, location and other factors can dictate the best approach.  Check out ACAPT's diversity resources for ideas. Also review the DEI section of the Excellence Framework in academic PT.
  • The admissions committee asked themselves key questions including:

    • Why do our students choose our DPT program?
    • What characteristics and experience are most important to us in a student?

They also delved into their data on exactly what successful students look like, defining success as avoiding academic probation (less than 3.2 GPA) as well as passing the school’s final comprehensive exam and the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE).

Beyond asking for applicants’ grades and GRE scores, they developed a spreadsheet of 12 attributes that are important for student success.  Examples include:

  • Participation in undergraduate research or tutoring.
  • Military experience.
  • Prior work experience in the physical therapy field and/or work with supervisory experience.
  • Participation in ongoing extracurricular activities like sports or band during their four years of undergrad.  They found these students were more likely to manage their time well and succeed in school.
  • Disadvantaged student questions identifying those with economically-disadvantaged backgrounds. These students tend to work to help fund their family and college finances and are often motivated, first generation college attendees.
  • Repeat applicants can have stronger applications after the first time.

To establish a holistic admissions process, WSSU takes a percentage of students with top scores for grades and GRE, then adds more students based on the next tier of students with top scores who also meet their 12 attribute criteria.  “I encourage every program to decide what’s important to them,” says Dr. Foxworth.

WSSU decided to keep the GRE requirement because it correlated highly with overall student success, but they no longer have a minimum GRE score.  They recognize that students need to be able to pass a standard exam (the NPTE) in the future in order to get their PT license.

Photo of WSSU's Doctor Physical Therapy (DPT) Class of 2024

WSSU Doctor of Physical Therapy Class of 2024 Group photo


“Grow your own” faculty & students

Since WSSU is a HBCU, they have become more intentional about recruiting more WSSU undergraduate students.  The DPT admissions team:

  • Meets with first-year experience counselors to describe the DPT school so they can advise freshmen.  
  • Attends more graduate fairs on their own campus.  They also visit campuses that have the types of students they want and they make connections.
  • Engages faculty in the traditional feeder programs (e.g. biology) to make sure they understand all DPT prerequisites and the admission process. 
  • Established an early assurance program with exercise science at WSSU. This program allows a qualified fourth-year second semester seniors to enroll in the DPT cohort a full semester early. This not only decreases cost for students but also expedites their graduation date. 

It is also important that students see themselves in their faculty.  WSSU went from a 40% diverse faculty to zero in the last couple years.  Retirements, promotions, and very competitive recruiting left WSSU without any diversity.  So they decided to intentionally build better pathways to academia.  They now carefully target racially-diverse clinical partners, students and alumni and provide opportunities for them to guest lecture, become lab assistants, take more courses, develop leadership skills and more.  You can see ACAPT resources and a video series explaining how clinical partners can transition to academia

“We need more role models for our students,” says Foxworth.  “We need to explain and show students how they could be us in academia!”  So they implemented new approaches that other DPT programs may try:

  • Intentionally educate your current students. Don’t make the assumption that your graduate students understand or know all the options available to them to further their degrees. In their second year, professors talk to students about career paths as part of their standard curricula.
  • Hold regular lunch and learns about higher education benefits, mentoring and more.  
  • WSSU commits to at least two DEI events annually and plan to expand upon a DEI week celebration held in 2022.  
  • WSSU students, alumni and clinical partners participated in an ACAPT webinar about pursuing a PhD and academic career.  
  • WSSU is also creating an alumni mentoring program utilizing diverse alumni using virtual meetings to mentor and encourage diverse students.  They’re starting with students who are struggling and offering them support to get back on track.  

Beyond racial diversity

After conducting student surveys, Foxworth was surprised to find out that some LGBTQ students did not feel safe.  “I’m in the LGBTQ group, so I realized I need to be more visible in my support.” 

  • Faculty are encouraged to post their pronouns on their email signatures and include in any Zoom meetings. 
  • Dr. Foxworth also posted a safe zone sign in her office and talks more about her family and lived experience with students. 

The real key to increasing diversity in DPT programs does not stop with recruitment; retention must also be addressed.  This requires faculty to embrace equity in the classroom. All professors are encouraged to include all types of family situations in case studies and photographic representation of minority racial groups in presentations.

“We need to focus on equity versus equality,” says Foxworth.  “We need to recognize that each person has different circumstances and then allocate the right resources and choices to reach an equal outcome.”  See more about equity and equality from the George Washington Milken Institute School of Public Health. 


Set & track your quantitative goals

In 2019, Winston Salem’s DPT program with 84 total students was 36% diverse, still better than the national average but they had higher aspirations.  The faculty set a goal that 85% of the students enrolled in the DPT program would identify from one of the following diverse groups: racial minority, rural background, LGBTQ+, non-binary gender.  It took a few years for efforts to pay off; however, the class of 2024 (whose students entered in January of 2022) is 55% racially diverse.  

Check out the Center for Excellence in Academic Physical Therapy


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