Upward Mobility at Marquette University

By Laura Merisalo, on behalf of Marquette University

Members of the Milwaukee Iron wheelchair rugby team scrimmage with students (Photo by Marquette University)

Members of the Milwaukee Iron wheelchair rugby team scrimmage with students (Photo by Marquette University)

Kelly Brush knows that some of the most important learning in her doctor of physical therapy program takes place far beyond the classroom or late-night study sessions in the library.

Brush, now in her fifth year of the six-year program at Marquette University, is president of the Adaptive Abilities Club, which brings students together to help local residents with disabilities rock climb, water-ski, downhill ski, scuba dive, fish, cycle and play sports such as rugby, basketball and sled hockey. During the club’s first outdoor climb this year, people confined to wheelchairs scaled cliffs at Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, WI.

The origins of the club are organic. Dr. Tina Stoeckmann, a clinical associate professor of physical therapy, who serves as the club's faculty adviser, says that some of her students learned of her volunteer work with adaptive abilities organizations a few years ago and wanted to get involved. She invited those who expressed interest to local events, and their interest ballooned into the club. “Everyone goes home happy, you’re re-energized when you’re done, and I think that’s what pulls people in,” Stoeckmann says. 

The Adaptive Abilities Club is open to all Marquette students, not just those in the physical therapy program. It differs from other student clubs, Stoeckmann says, as it doesn’t sponsor events but supports outside organizations. Among them are Adaptive Adventures and Diveheart, a Chicago-based adaptive scuba organization that expanded its events to Milwaukee in 2016, after learning about the club.

“This was their baby. They wrote the proposal. They got the pool. And they also provided deck help,” says Sarah Repka, an adaptive scuba instructor affiliated with Diveheart. “The Adaptive Abilities Club wrote the grant to pay for us to have three hours in the water [in Marquette's pools]. It’s nice to be around dedicated, good people."

Marquette’s physical therapy program is tough — both to get into, and to succeed in. The program has had as many as 1,600 applicants for its 65 slots, and the average ACT score is 30.6. Once in the program, students are in class for about 24 hours a week, and classes with labs often have written and oral exams, which can translate to as many as nine final exams a semester. 

Brush and others, however, don’t see the club as extra work. They say it is fun, stress relieving and invigorating. “To get off campus, to help people get to the top of that rock-climbing wall...I come back just feeling rejuvenated and refreshed and ready to learn more,” Brush says. “I know there are people out there who really need me.” 

That club members are changing lives through their volunteer efforts, however, isn’t something they dwell on. Rather, what seems to resonate most is how their involvement is changing them.

Adaptive Abilities Club members Kelly Bush and Zach Hodgson help Matthew Knowles rock climb (Photo by Marquette University)

Adaptive Abilities Club members Kelly Bush and Zach Hodgson help Matthew Knowles rock climb (Photo by Marquette University)

Zach Hodgson’s passion for skiing drew him to the club as a sophomore. “I just really wanted to share that passion with the population that we work with.” 

It was only a matter of time before he started volunteering at the club’s rock-climbing events twice a month at Adventure Rock in Brookfield, WI, and fishing events in the summer. 

Hodgson will graduate in May with a career goal different than the dream job he initially envisioned. His original plan was to pair his passion for skiing with a career that focused on helping skiers who were injured or disabled get back on the slopes. 

Today, because of his experiences with the club and, particularly, with Abigail and Cate Johnson — two girls whose wheelchairs don’t keep them from rock climbing, playing soccer and other sports — Hodgson has other plans. 

Abigail, 17, and Cate, 14, are both nonverbal and have undiagnosed physical and developmental disabilities. But they communicate with Hodgson just fine.

“I know the little microtones of their voices,” Hodgson says. “Everyone has their own special form of communication, and if you can learn that, you can really enhance [your] physical therapy practice.” 

Cate and Abigail’s parents, Mike and Crystal, say that Hodgson and other Marquette students add brilliance to their daughters’ lives. “When [our daughters] see the energy that these Marquette students bring, it lights up their world,” Crystal says.

The club, Mike notes, embodies the Marquette motto: Be the difference. “That kind of activity, that’s a difference-maker, when they’re at Marquette and beyond,” he says. 

Hodgson credits the Johnson family with making a difference in his life too. He now plans to focus his physical therapy practice on pediatrics. “Skiing will always be a part of my life, but it will not play as much of a role in my physical therapy direction,” Hodgson says. “I really want to work with families or patients who have developmental disabilities that really need that continuum of care throughout their lives, as well as the support and understanding that these children can go out and have normal lives.”

The club is in its third year and swiftly growing, says senior Megan Rapacz, who joined as a freshman and now serves as vice president. The club’s email list includes nearly 140 students, roughly 80 of whom are active volunteers. In its second year, the club earned the Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J. Spirit of Marquette Award [named for Marquette's former president].

Rapacz's experience with the club has helped to shape her future plans. Her goal is to open a day care center for children with disabilities and able-bodied children, in an effort to promote acceptance of diversity in physical abilities at an early age.

“You can learn about empathy, and learn the words, but to actually do it is totally different,” Rapacz says. “I’m making someone else’s life more fun.”

Brush also plans to pursue a different path because of the club. She grew up as a competitive Scottish dancer and had plenty of physical therapy experience as an injured athlete. That experience drew her into Marquette's program, which she thought would lead her to working with fellow dancers.

Then, she joined the Adaptive Abilities Club. “I fell in love with it after the first time,” Brush says. “To see that anything is possible has definitely changed me.”

Brush now has her eye on neurologic physical therapy. “PT is so much more than helping athletes,” she says. “It is helping to give back self-dignity and basic life skills. Physical therapy helps people live their lives.”