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Arnold School of Public Health

Doctor of physical therapy graduate finds passion for advocacy and working with older adults

December 19, 2018 | Erin Bluvas,

It was 20 years ago when Robyn Culbertson became a UofSC alumna for the first time. She had earned a master’s degree in mass communication and spent the next 15 years working in magazine writing, editing and graphic design before deciding to change careers.

During the past two decades, Culbertson had also begun running and racing in triathlons. “This soon segued into coaching, which led me to think about ways I could make a career out of helping people achieve their health and fitness goals,” she says. “A lot of my clients suffered from overuse injuries, so learning about the prevention and treatment of those injuries became important to me. A career in physical therapy seemed like a natural fit.”

Originally from Conway, South Carolina, Culbertson had been living in Columbia since her master’s graduation and was happy to have a highly ranked doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program at a university she trusted right in town. Only two months into the fall 2015 semester, however, Culbertson and her husband lost their home due to the historic flooding that accompanied Hurricane Joaquin.    

“It’s hard enough to get through physical therapy school without the disruption that losing your home can cause,” Culbertson says. “But my USC DPT family rallied around us. They helped us clean out our water-damaged belongings so we could start to rebuild, provided me with notes and books so that I could keep up with my studies, and made donations of household items and gift cards so that we could begin to replace what we lost.”

That sense of family carried over to the program as well where Culbertson developed her research and clinical practice skills. For her research project, she examined the effects of Kinesiotape® on movement, strength and function at the shoulder—a topic which she is submitting for journal publication with the encouragement of her advisor, clinical associate professor Cathy Arnot. Through her clinical rotations, Culbertson developed a passion for working with geriatric patients with a focus on falls and balance prevention.

DPT program director Stacy Fritz encouraged Culbertson to attend her first national conference, which fostered her interest in advocacy and service. During her program, Culbertson has regularly volunteered with NeXT, a USC program that encourages survivors of stroke and other neurological disorders to participate in regular exercise and physical activity, and Yoga for Everyone, a community-based program adapted for people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders.

Committed to the advocacy component of the physical therapy profession, Culbertson participated in physical therapy day at the S.C. State House and ran for a seat on the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Student Assembly Board of Directors. “That experience opened a lot of doors for me and helped me to establish a national network of future physical therapists and physical therapist assistants who I can reach out to for support and guidance in my career,” Culbertson says.

She currently serves as the student assembly liaison for PTNow, a position through which she was invited to present two educational sessions at the 2018 National Student Conclave. She also recently accepted a two-year position as S.C. State Advocate for the APTA’s Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy, which she hopes to leverage into more statewide and national APTA volunteer activities.

Culbertson has already taken and passed her national physical therapy exam, and after her December graduation, she hopes to work with older adults in a skilled nursing facility in the Columbia area. “It speaks to both an interest in other people’s lives and stories that I cultivated during my journalism career and a desire to help people maintain their strength and independence as they age,” she says.

For those considering a career in physical therapy, Culbertson recommends staying focused on making a difference in the lives of patients and in the community. “It’s why I’ve been a big proponent of volunteerism and advocacy during my time in the USC DPT program,” she says. “Classes are hard and, yes, time is limited, so it’s easy to dismiss that and focus just on school. But I found that getting outside of my own head and thinking about other things besides an upcoming exam or practical has made me a better student and, ultimately, a more well-rounded therapist.”


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