APIDA Heritage Spotlight

May was Asian, Pacific Islander & Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month, and although May has passed, we still want to support those who identify as APIDA within the DPT program and share their stories and experiences at UF and within the PT profession.

Getting informed? Consider these resources.

Alappattu headshot

Research Assistant Professor

Meryl Alappattu, DPT, PhD

Education: Bachelor of Science from Indiana University; Doctor of Physical Therapy from the University of Florida; Doctor of Philosophy in the UF Rehabilitation Science Program. Leadership roles: Co-Chair of the UF Department of Physical Therapy Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) Committee; Member of the American Physical Therapy Association, Florida Physical Therapy Association, International Association for the Study of Pain, the American Pain Society, and the International Pelvic Pain Society.

Are you involved in DEI initiatives/committees? Why is that important to you?

I co-chair the UF PT Department’s Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) Committee. Being part of IDEA is important to me because we have a big problem with a lack of IDEA in the physical therapy profession and in our training programs. I can acknowledge and/or complain about this fact or I can be part of the team leading changes, and I chose the latter. 

What advice would you give other Asian, Pacific Islander & Desi Americans navigating through healthcare/physical therapy?

Find people to whom you can relate and from whom you can seek advice. My parents are from India and did not go to college in the US or complete college applications, student loan applications, etc. When I was applying to PT schools, I didn’t know anyone who had gone through this process either, so I really had no idea what to expect, and in some cases, I was in for big surprises. I didn’t know that each program charged an application fee or think about the expenses associated with having to travel for interviews. I didn’t think about moving expenses and paying for books. My parents had taken care of these types of things before and during undergrad, so being off the hook for these types of expenses was an eye-opening experience….and steep learning curve on managing my finances.  So find a sibling, cousin, family friend, etc. who can help guide you through these processes if you haven’t gone through them before.

Shane Matthew

First-year dpt student

Shane Mathew, SPT

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Health Education and Behavior from the University of Florida. Leadership roles: Administrative Co-Director of the Equal Access Physical Therapy Clinic, Class of 2023 DEI Committee member. Most proud of as a PT Student: Being part of a pivotal class that has had to overcome different obstacles amidst the pandemic, and being one of the student leaders in this cohort to usher in the transition back to in-person with new challenges to face ahead.

What attracted you to physical therapy?

In my eyes, Physical Therapy is both a science and an art. The science of healing and the art of caring. To be able to see a patient during sensitive and vulnerable periods of their life and act as a guiding light to restore their confidence in themselves and their abilities is a blessing that few professions get to experience. I accidentally found the profession when I was fourteen years old, walking into a South Florida Veterans Affairs clinic looking to volunteer to obtain service hours for high school requirements. A physical therapist had been looking for a student volunteer to help escort her patients around the clinic and perform clerical work. What started as a meager effort to gather service hours blossomed into five years of serving our nation’s veterans and participating in the rehabilitative experience.

Are you involved in DEI initiatives/committees? Why is that important to you?

I am involved in departmental DEI efforts. I am currently a member of the Class of 2023 DEI Committee, where we are currently tackling efforts to improve program outreach to minority student populations who would otherwise be dissuaded from attending our program. I also have the honor of serving as the Administrative Co-Director of the Equal Access Physical Therapy Clinic; one of my responsibilities is finding ways to make changes to areas of the clinic that need improvement and increase the efficacy of treatment so that our patients feel seen and heard by our students. It is my hope that we can continue to improve cultural competency in our clinical training so that students are able to acknowledge different areas of the patient experience, thereby preparing them to be compassionate providers of value when we graduate in several years.

Andy Huynh

First-Year dpt student

Andy Huynh, SPT

Education: Bachelor’s degree from University of South Florida, majoring in Health Sciences. Most proud of as a PT Student: I’m most proud of learning new skills and applying them to others to improve their quality of life. As far as leadership positions within the program, I am a Class Leader in Community Health. I am responsible for leading exercise classes with the residents of the Gainesville Housing Authority.

What attracted you to PT?

My grandmother was involved in a traumatic car accident when I was very young. Seeing how impactful physical therapy was on her life inspires me to help others with their recovery and improve their quality of life.

What advice would you share with your younger self?

Be proud of your heritage. Growing up, I rejected my culture because it was different from my friends. I wanted to fit in and be like everyone else. It was not until I went to the University of South Florida that I saw the large Asian community/organizations, and that helped me embrace my heritage. This was further reinforced when I started PT school here at UF by connecting with classmates that have the same heritage as me. I wish I recognized how amazing it is to be able to call myself Asian American at a younger age, but I feel like it was much more impactful to learn this at a later stage of my life.

Darshan Ghayal

First-Year DPT Student

Darshan Ghayal, SPT

Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of North Florida in Health Science with a concentration in Exercise Science and a minor in Business Management. Most proud of as a PT Student: Being a part of a health professions program that continues to expand and includes colleagues who are driven to advocate for what they believe in. This in turn, has helped me find a desire to voice my own ideas and beliefs as well.

What attracted you to physical therapy?

I was attracted to physical therapy, because of the positive impact I saw it can have on someone’s current health condition and the benefits it holds for one’s future progression and lifestyle. Having a family that is heavily involved in various healthcare occupations, I was exposed to a multitude of health-related jargon and ideas from a young age.

What advice would you give other Asian, Pacific Islander & Desi Americans navigating through healthcare/physical therapy?

If I am ever able to give advice to other APIDA-identifying persons regarding navigating through healthcare/physical therapy, it would be to advocate for themselves and their ideas to ensure they can gain as much knowledge and insight from that respective experience as possible. Healthcare is ever-changing, but experienced healthcare professionals might still practice and have views that can seem a bit dated. As someone identifying as APIDA in predominantly white healthcare spaces, there are going to be situations that make you uncomfortable. Voicing your discomfort both immediately and professionally is essential.

Chandni Mistry

Incoming DPT Student

Chandni Mistry

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Health Science with a concentration in Exercise Science from the University of North Florida. Most proud of as a PT Student: I am truly most proud of the fact that I have made it to where I am today. The younger version of me had big goals, but I am pretty sure she was not expecting to see herself attending UF as a DPT student.

What attracted you to physical therapy?

I truly didn’t know what physical therapy was until high school, where I injured my leg during cross country. I was referred to a pediatric PT clinic and instantly loved the concept of being able to help others, promote exercise and healthy habits, while also being in a public-health-related field.

What advice would you give other Asian, Pacific Islander & Desi Americans navigating through healthcare/physical therapy?

Stereotypes are always out there. There have been so many times that I have been assumed to be going into certain fields or have been told I am smart just from the color of my skin and the looks of my face. All the assumptions have made me rethink my choices, and if I was going down the right career path to suit “my kind.” My advice is to stick to what you enjoy and what you want to do in life, not what others stereotype you as.

Michelle Nguyen

First-Year DPT Student

Michelle Nguyen, SPT

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Health Science from the University of Central Florida. Most proud of as a PT Student: Growing up when I made good grades in school it was automatically dismissed due to my race. ‘Oh it's because you're Asian,’ my classmates would say. For years I believed them and would dismiss my own successes, and I convinced myself they didn't mean anything. My proudest moment as a student was when I realized that wasn't the case. I didn't do well academically because I am Vietnamese. I did well because I am hardworking, smart, and resourceful. My abilities and how I got to where I am today was all me, not because of my race.

What has been your personal experience as someone who identifies as APIDA in physical therapy/PT school?

Physical therapy is not an APIDA dominant field. So truthfully, it can feel lonely. It can feel like you are the only one having these unique experiences and no one around you understands. Reaching out to other APIDA students in my cohort and sharing my personal experience has helped me work through anxieties related to being an Asian American woman in healthcare. Together we work towards becoming better advocates for ourselves and other APIDA members in our community. PT school has given me the confidence to embrace who I am and voice my opinion. I truly believe that without them I wouldn’t have as strong of sense of self. 

What advice would you give other Asian, Pacific Islander & Desi Americans navigating through healthcare/physical therapy?

The best advice I can give is to reach out and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. The amount of love and support I have received in this program has been incredible. Breaking out of my comfort zone and speaking up has given me friends I’ll have for life.

Vicki Li headshot

First-Year DPT Student

Vicki Li, SPT

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology from the University of Florida Leadership roles: Direct Access Manager of UF PT EAC; Member of the Welcome Committee and Fitness Committee. Most proud of as a PT Student: I am most proud of being a part of a cohort that is eager to learn from each other and are so supportive despite our differences.

What attracted you to physical therapy?

My grandpa in Taiwan had an unsuccessful knee replacement and was not given any suggestions from his physicians to go to physical therapy that led him to become wheelchair dependent. Seeing him go from chasing my siblings and me around in our childhood to not being able to move around without pain was disheartening. While I won’t ever get back those moments with my grandpa, I want to make sure that grandparents running after their grandkids won’t be missed by others. This attracted me to physical therapy – ­the desire to help patients get back to their optimal quality of life and not have to miss out on any milestones in their lives. ­­

What has been your personal experience as someone who identifies as APIDA in physical therapy/PT school?

Not seeing enough AIPDA representation in the field can be lonely and make you feel invisible, especially with the continuation of discrimination and hate crimes accumulating due to COVID. One thing I am grateful for is my cohort and our faculty’s willingness to educate themselves and do better regarding social and cultural injustices. I have learned that even if you are surrounded by people who may not experience similar hardships, you can open the door, encourage those difficult conversations, and advocate for not only yourself, but classmates, friends, family, and future APIDA physical therapists.