Surviving Physical Therapy School (100% Online)

December 8th, 2019- The day I got into Physical Therapy School. I still remember every detail about where I was and what I was doing when I found out I had been accepted into my top choice Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The sheer excitement and relief that I initially felt really cannot be overstated. This was something I had worked so hard for, had sacrificed for, and now it was finally a reality. It had been a long journey, but with my acceptance letter in hand, I truly felt that it had all been worth it.

The next few months were full of excitement and anticipation. I was breezing through my last semester of undergrad with not a worry in the world. I thought that absolutely nothing could put out the light that I was radiating from one day to the next. But then COVID-19 happened. And it totally changed everything.

How COVID Changed PT School for Me

I don’t exactly remember the day, but at some point in May, my program announced to all of the first year students that all of our coursework would be 100% online for the entirety of the summer semester. Honestly, by this point I saw it coming, but I cannot tell you how devastated I was at this news.

In case you didn’t know, PT school is hard, and being 100% online does not make it any easier! Below I highlight what I consider to be the top two most negatively impacted aspects of PT school by being 100% online. Read through to the end to see some of my strategies for combating these roadblocks.

Challenge #1: Friendships

Comradery between what are supposed to be my 67 newest best friends and myself is definitely limited. There is no chatting in the hallways before class and there is no heading out to the bars on Friday nights after a difficult anatomy test. Most of us are social people and we want to hang out with each other. However, we are also future healthcare professionals and feel the pressure to do what’s best for society. Having to manage these conflicting desires has been an unexpected challenge to say the least.

Challenge #2: Motivation

This somewhat links back to #1, but finding the willpower to sit alone in my room day after day as I attend hours upon hours of zoom lectures is so difficult. It’s hard to sit here alone while the rest of my family goes to the beach or out on the boat. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was largely just going through the motions. As a future healthcare professional, that is definitely not a trend I like seeing in myself.

Burnout is no joke in a difficult DPT program. I would argue that the limited comradery and long days of online lectures are likely to speed up the burnout process for many students.

Alright, so now that we have the negatives established, let’s go over my top 6 things to keep in mind while trying to navigate this new normal on a daily basis.

1. Set A Routine

I really cannot emphasize this one enough. As a very routine person, the quick switch to online learning back in undergrad really threw me off my game. Setting a routine, scheduling out everything (including exercise), and sticking to it makes everything so much easier. 10/10 recommend.

2. Mindset Is Everything

Whatever you’re freaking out about, it doesn’t matter. It’s not worth your mental health. There is a positive light to be seen in every situation, so find it and focus on that. Change your attitude and it’ll change your life.

3. Interact With Your Classmates

Building relationships with your classmates is so important. You are going to be interacting with and relying on these people for the next several years. Reach out to each other. Study together on zoom. Do literally anything you can to start laying the foundations for what will hopefully be lifelong friendships. Your future self will thank you.

4. Change Up Your Environment

The mundane day to day of online PT school can be mind numbing. Doing everything you can to add some variation to your days will benefit you immensely. Attend your classes from different rooms of your house. Study flashcards while on a walk. Whatever you do, do not let yourself sit in one place for an entire semester just staring at your computer. There’s no way that’s healthy.

5. Realize That This Is Only Temporary

Every time I start feeling bad for myself, this is the thought that gets me through. Nothing about this situation is ideal, but it could be so much worse. Every bad situation does eventually get better. If you can’t convince yourself of that, how are you ever going to convince your patients?

6. Make The Most Of The Situation

I definitely had to change up some of the goals I had previously set for myself due to COVID, but that’s okay. Regardless of whether I’m home alone or on campus, there’s always something that I can do to push myself forward. Don’t let yourself settle for less. Be resourceful, adapt with what you have, and overcome.

I was talking to a friend from undergrad the other day about how school was going and she asked me this question- “A year from now, will you wish that you had taken a gap year?” Such a great reflective question, I know.

Here’s my answer: I don’t know. No one knows what things will be like a year from now or how long this virus situation is going to last. I have no control over that. What I do know is that I am going to put in the effort day after day to get the most out of this very unideal situation and you should too. At the very least, if you’re still unhappy with where you are in a year’s time, you’ll be able to say with confidence that you did your best to make the most of it. That’s all we can ever really do.

Above all, remember why you started on this journey and keep pushing forward towards that goal. Struggle very often leads to personal growth. I have to believe that we’re going to be better for it in the end.

About the Author: Elena Smith is a first year DPT student at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. You can follow her journey on Instagram at @mydptjourney.

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