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Julia Black ’20 develops pro bono clinic to aid underserved Hispanic patients with physical therapy

Julia Black ’20 came to the College of Saint Benedict knowing she wanted to go on to become a physical therapist. So, as a first-year student, biochemistry seemed like a logical major. And it was. But was it her only option?

Through volunteer and shadow experiences in physical therapy, she learned the importance of skilled and respectful communication in providing high-quality, patient-centered care. And Black felt a personal calling to help underserved populations. So, after reflection and several meetings with her advisor, Julia decided to follow her instincts and switch her major to Hispanic Studies. By completing the Hispanic Studies degree, along with a study abroad experience in Chile, Black graduated with the knowledge and skills to work effectively with a more diverse patient population. And she was able to do it in only three years.

Today, she has gone on to be one of the youngest members of her class in the PT graduate program at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa.

During her first two years of classes and didactic work at Briar Cliff, Black helped found the North Central Regional Pro Bono Network Consortium. Under the auspices of the university, Black was the first coordinator for the network, which takes referrals for residents of the region for whom English is not their native language – at no cost to those who do not have insurance or have exhausted their benefits.

Black, who also studied abroad in Spain, often provided the care first-hand under the supervision of licensed professionals at the Briar Cliff PT Clinic.

“Our patient outcomes just went zooming as soon as people were heard and they got the care they deserved,” Black said. “The patients would spread the good news of our clinic to all their friends and family. We were seeing so many people and it wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have that language ability. Think if you went to a country where you didn’t speak the language right now and you had a problem and needed to fix it and you had no idea what people were saying. Does that mean you deserve any less care than someone else?”

The pro bono clinic is one of more than 100 such student-operated clinics across the nation. It provides care to patients ranging from injury victims to those coming back from a stroke. In one case, Black helped a Hispanic woman stand and walk after a miscommunication with a doctor left her thinking she would never do so again.

Black is completing her doctorate with five clinical rotations in varying parts of the country this year. She will gain experience in rural and urban settings, as well as in a sports context and hospital setting.

And she encourages other CSB and Saint John’s University students to think about careers in physical and occupational therapy regardless of what their undergraduate interest may be.

“I’ve talked to a lot of students who have come after me, and I’ve told them you don’t have to major in kinesiology or exercise sport science,” Black said. “It helps. But the liberal arts education and the language requirement can be valuable in so many ways. There’s a reason that broad education is necessary. It prepares you for these real-world experiences.”

Black said she loved her time at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.

“I made so many friends – and I was only there three years,” Black said. “I wrote about this in my (First-Year Seminar) paper – not that what you choose doesn’t matter but why it’s important to study what you love. Don’t just do biochem because your medical school thinks it looks good. I think a big reason why I was accepted into Briar Cliff was because I stood out … I had passions that weren’t like everyone else. It’s so hard to get into PT school and med school and OT school. But Saint Ben’s helped set me apart. You’re still getting your prerequisite classes, you’re getting what you need, but when you’re doing something you love, you’re probably going to get better grades and have a better time in school.”

And there will be a need for a lot more people like Black. Through the decade of the 2020s, employment for physical therapists is expected to increase more than 20 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a much faster rate than most occupations and, nationally, will account for almost 50,000 new jobs. Considering they had a 2021 median annual pay of $95,000, the future could be quite rewarding.

Julia

Julia Black ’20, who helped create a pro bono physical therapy clinic in Sioux City, Iowa, was a guest speaker at the Pro Bono Network national conference in March at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. Black, now in her third and final year of study for her doctorate in PT through Briar Cliff University, was flown to the conference to address her peers on the process of establishing a place where non-English speakers who have exhausted their insurance benefits or never had any can get care for their PT needs.