WesternU CHS-Northwest Commencement Celebrates Inaugural Doctor of Physical Therapy Graduates

Gerald Thrush, COMP-Northwest faculty, stands at attention with the first graduating class of the College of Health Sciences in Lebanon. Photos by Sarah Brown

By Rodney Tanaka
Story contributed by Western University of Health Sciences


Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Health Sciences-Northwest (CHS-Northwest) celebrated the trailblazing inaugural Class of 2024 Doctor of Physical Therapy graduates at a Commencement ceremony May 24 at Boulder Falls Center.

CHS-Northwest Department of Physical Therapy Education Chair and Professor Sandra Saavedra, PhD, PT, was among the many speakers who lauded this class as pioneers and trailblazers. These students attended classes online, gathered in small groups, and even turned their cars into dining halls in the parking lot. Through it all, their humor, respect and care for one another shone brightly, Saavedra said.

“Your final year took you across the country from coast to coast. You represented our program with your professionalism and passion,” Saavedra said. “You have set a very high standard for those who follow in your footsteps and you’ve shaped the reputation of DPT-Oregon. Thank you for the wonderful reputation you’ve given to us already.”

These graduates are well-prepared to be pathfinders in this field, she said.

“It has truly been an honor for me to have the privilege of taking a front row seat to watch the commitment and the magnificent progress you have made,” Saavedra said. “You are the best gift we can offer to a world in need of healing and hope. Go out there and inspire everyone you meet to do better because that’s the heart of who you are.”

Keynote speaker Mike Cowgill, JD, LHD (Hon.), is a member of the WesternU Board of Trustees and a supporter of WesternU Oregon since its inception. He quoted renowned UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach John Wooden: “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” He urged graduates not to measure their success with money.

“Focus on your relationships. First with your family and friends, but then your fellow physical therapists and especially your patients. The patient is the number one person that you need to focus your career on,” Cowgill said. “In my experience, personal relationships and life experiences are so much more valuable. Measure your success by the handshakes and hugs you receive from your grateful patients and the thank-you cards and the thank-you notes.”

This Class of 2024 helped create the culture, the environment and the personality of CHS-Northwest, Cowgill said.

Some of the first student’s from Lebanon’s College of Health Sciences watch a video at the start of the graduation ceremony.

“Your vigor and vitality enriched the experiences of everyone along the way. You left your mark here. You left your mark in the college, in the department, and in Lebanon. Your own brand. And for that we are grateful. Never forget your WesternU experience. Embrace the core principles of patient-centered care, humanism and commitment to excellence,” he said. “You are the first physical therapy graduates in the history of Lebanon. You will always be remembered as trailblazers as well. You did what no one has ever done before.”

DPT-Oregon graduate speaker Natalie Garcia, DPT ’24, said there are no words for three of the hardest years she and her classmates have ever experienced. When fear, doubt or disappointment settled in, they chose to cast it aside. We were persistent and there was no limit to what we could achieve, she said.

“During these last three years we have learned more about ourselves, our expectations, our values and our desires both personally and professionally,” Garcia said. “I am beyond proud of how far we have come. As we start our careers, let us carry that commitment to remain avid learners. It is through our hunger for knowledge that we elevate our profession to new heights, setting ourselves apart. Let’s aim to be role models known for both expertise and our outstanding patient care, setting a standard that will motivate others.”

CHS-Northwest held a dinner celebration for the graduates on May 23. Among the awards and honors presented, the Clinical Education team gave the Class of 2024 a plaque listing the names of all 44 graduating seniors. The plaque will be displayed on the CHS-Northwest campus.

“This group is the foundation of the program. The 44 seniors in this room took a chance on WesternU. You stayed through the bumps in the road, the changes, and the different challenges,” said CHS-Northwest Clinical Education Manager Emerson Helbling.

“You gave us input and feedback that helped us improve, and you trusted us with your education. You learned and grew as professionals while our program learned from you. We grew together. This plaque is dedicated to your time here. Every graduating senior played a critical role in shaping the program and so every senior has a name memorialized on the plaque. You will soon move into the next phase of your lives. While your futures will take you thousands of different places and you will all go on to do great things in your careers and your lives, you will always be part of WesternU Oregon.”

CHS-Northwest graduate Cynthia Ho, DPT ’24, said she feels like she learned a lot and made awesome connections with people.

“It’s been an interesting experience. I feel like I’ve grown a lot in leadership. It’s not something I saw for myself,” Ho said. “It’s been really cool to get to help determine how the program develops and where it goes.”

Ho received the Student Affairs Award for her outstanding dedication to classmates and for creating a positive, welcoming community. She said those traits extend to her entire class.

“I think something everyone in my class does really well is look out for each other,” Ho said. “Everyone is so kind and so genuine.”

CHS-Northwest graduate Jesse Quarum, DPT ’24, said he chose WesternU because he connected quickly with faculty during the interview process.

“I felt they really wanted to get to know me as a person versus just me as another applicant,” he said. “They took five hours going down every sort of different avenue of exploring who I am. That felt really good to be recognized and known. They really care, and it shows.”

He and his classmates took a big leap of faith in joining a new program.

“We all had to adapt together, which made us super strong and resilient to take on the next challenges,” Quarum said. “All the different things that come with a new program. We stuck together, we listened to one another. We created a vibrant and fun culture.”