When the University of Miami put out a call for racial justice projects in 2021, doctoral students in the Miller School of Medicine Department of Physical Therapy quickly stepped up. Minorities are underrepresented in physical therapy (PT), so the doctoral students developed the Puzzle Pieces program to raise awareness in Black communities about the profession as a career choice.
Today, Puzzle Pieces works with minority high school and middle school students in the Greater Miami area to help them pursue PT careers. The aim: to boost the percentage of Black physical therapists from the current 5% to more closely reflect U.S. demographics.
“Many kids want to be a doctor, policeman, or lawyer, but PT is something they may not know about or may not have considered,” said Martha Henao Bloyer, D.P.T., a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and one of three faculty advisors in the Puzzle Pieces program.
The effort began in the summer of 2020, when the nation was gripped by social justice protests. That year, the University’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement, Multicultural Student Affairs, and the Butler Center for Service and Leadership launched an annual grants program to support student-led racial justice projects. The Puzzle Pieces team applied and received funding. Since then, they have earned grants yearly to support ongoing activities.
Physical Therapy as a Career Choice
Several reasons explain why some students may not consider PT careers, Dr. Bloyer says. They may have never received PT or known people who have, or they may be discouraged by the three-year doctorate required to be licensed as a physical therapist — a hurdle for many low-income families.
But practitioners say that the rewards from helping patients build strength and confidence through PT, often after accidents and surgeries, are priceless.
“We see our patients multiple times, so we can really develop a relationship with the patient and their families,” says Dr. Bloyer. “Showing young students what we do really intrigues them.”
The Puzzle Pieces Program typically relies on six PT doctoral-student volunteers yearly who take part in Career Day events for youth, mentor undergraduate students, and collaborate with groups like the University’s United Black Students and the nonprofit Breakthrough Miami for younger students. Funds from grants cover transport expenses and application fees for undergraduate students seeking to enter the University’s PT doctoral program.
Esmeralda Sandoval, a second-year PT doctoral student at the Miller School, began volunteering with Puzzle Pieces in 2021. Sandoval had been exposed to PT through school sports but had never considered it as a career until she shadowed a physical therapist during a study trip in Spain. She realized that helping people by teaching them movement “would give me the life I want and the chance to give back,” says Sandoval.
Sandoval says she enjoys sharing opportunities in physical therapy with students from underrepresented backgrounds. “We’re so much stronger together,” she said.