Physical Therapy Program Elevates Hands-On Learning with International Clinical Rotations

Bryan Terry, Assistant Director of Content Marketing & Communications
Benjamin Surman (top row, second from right) with his colleagues at the clinic in Umbertide, Italy. Photo courtesy of Dr. Julie Fineman, Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

April 9, 2024 — Providing students with comprehensive, hands-on experience is a trademark of Marist's Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Completing a clinical rotation abroad in pursuit of the degree adds even more depth to this educational approach.

With this distinctive program, DPT students can choose to complete one of their final 10-week clinical rotations internationally, providing the opportunity to enhance their clinical skills, cultural competence, and personal growth.

Benjamin Surman, who graduated in December 2023, completed his final rotation in Umbertide, Italy.

"This rotation abroad helped me develop in many ways. I got hands-on experience with a new patient population with different cultural beliefs while being exposed to different treatment ideologies," said Ben.

Begun in 2006, international rotation opportunities have now expanded to four countries: Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and England. Placements are facilitated by the health education company EduGlobal.

The abroad opportunities build on a curriculum spanning 36 months of classroom and clinical work, in which Marist DPT students benefit from small class and lab sizes, as well as a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio, ensuring personalized attention from expert faculty.

“Many DPT students start with a specific patient population in mind, but I urge them to use their clinical education to explore diverse opportunities, settings, and patient types,” said Dr. Julie Fineman, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Education. “International rotations prepare them to treat patients of all ages and in various care settings, offering a unique chance to step out of their comfort zone and experience diverse healthcare approaches, aligning with Marist's pillar of 'Expansive Community.'”

Mary Smyth, a 2022 graduate of the DPT program, completed her final rotation in a town called Fiesole, near Florence, Italy. She described her decision to apply for an international rotation as a chance to fulfill her desire to see the world while pursuing her degree. Mary found the experience to be transformative, both personally and professionally.

Image of Kelly Boonie (left) and Mary Smyth (right) standing in front of the entrance to their clinic in Fiesole, Italy.
Kelly Boonie (left) and Mary Smyth (right) standing in front of the entrance to their clinic in Fiesole, Italy. Photo by Mary Smyth DPT '22.

"Nonverbal communication is such an important skill for us to have as PTs, and I certainly feel I developed these skills through teaching new exercises, explaining plans of care, and understanding my patients’ responses to care," she said.

Kelly Boonie, also a 2022 graduate who worked in Fiesole, added that even the logistics of the appointments gave her a new perspective.

“It was very different from what I was used to at previous clinics in the US, where we see on average 15-20 patients each day, two patients per hour, for 45 minutes,” she said. “In Italy, we would see 5-10 patients in the morning all at the same time, but for multiple hours, with the same in the afternoon.”

Each student works 1:1 with a physical therapist, who serves as their mentor. All of the clinical instructors speak English, and help students with translation as needed to assure adequate communication with each patient.

Ben took his own initiative to help bridge language differences, jotting down common Italian words and terms used in physical therapy, which he then developed into his final project: a handbook to help future students. "I thought that since I was already making it for myself why not share it for others," he said. "My hope is that it cuts down the learning curve that they have with their patients, and they can really maximize their time."

Drew Coisson, a 2023 graduate of the DPT program who completed his rotation in Lugano, Switzerland, emphasized how rewarding it was to learn and bridge cultural differences.

“Even though the conversations were at a basic level, by the end of the rotation I was able to do a few treatments speaking entirely in Italian,” Drew said. “Despite initial hurdles, I found that mutual respect, patience, and a willingness to learn facilitated meaningful interactions with both patients and colleagues.”

Image if Drew Coisson exploring the mountains in Grindelwald during his free time in Switzerland.
Drew Coisson exploring the mountains in Grindelwald during his free time in Switzerland. Photo by Drew Coisson DPT '23.

For their final project, Kelly and Mary created a guide of what to know and expect for future students doing clinical rotations abroad.

“It was actually nice to look back on how much we had learned,” said Kelly. “It was hard at first but there was much more maturing and independence and learning to be an adult than I thought there would be before going.” 

Students are paired with another student to share costs and typically have clinic hours Monday to Friday, leaving weekends free for exploration. 

Interested students can meet with Dr. Fineman to discuss their goals and expectations for an international experience. The application process begins in their second year for a placement in their third academic year.

"I wouldn’t be the PT I am today without having this experience, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity," said Mary. 

These international rotations not only provide students with unique clinical experiences but also offer opportunities for important cultural exchange. Many students have connected with fellow EduGlobal students, exploring Italy and beyond every weekend—an opportunity of a lifetime.

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