Inaugural Light the Way Scholarship Awarded to Two Doctor of Physical Therapy Students

Light the Way Scholarship recipients will receive the scholarship funding during each of their two years in the DPT program. Recipients, Humberto Perez and La-Dayijah Cook, intend to impact access and representation within the physical therapy profession after graduation.

January 26, 2024
Baylor University's Pat Neff Hall is lit up green, with sunset in background.

Thanks to an anonymous donor, the Department of Physical Therapy awarded its inaugural Light the Way Scholarship in 2023. The scholarship was awarded to two DPT students in the Class of 2023 and 2024.

“We are so grateful to the anonymous donor who provided the initial funds for this scholarship,” Tom Longbottom, PT, DPT, Clinical Associate Professor, said.

Recipients, Humberto Perez, DPT, and La-Dayijah Cook, SPT, embody the core values of Baylor University’s Department of Physical Therapy and are intentional in ways to improve diversity and representation within physical therapy.

“Both scholarship recipients, Beto and La-Dayijah, were clear in their vision to promote community and serve through their profession after graduation,” Jessica Feda, PT, DPT, Clinical Assistant Professor, said. “Their submissions were inspiring. Both were detailed in their plans for the future, describing how they would give back using their talents and lived experiences to add to the physical therapy profession.”

According to Longbottom, it was a competitive field of applicants and scholarship committee members were“overwhelmingly impressed with the applicants' quality, stories, and ambitions.” Recipients were selected based on their vision for how to impact the needs in the physical therapy profession relative to underrepresented minorities. Financial need and academic status were also considered.

“The underrepresented minority component has to do with the existing demographics of our profession, where practicing physical therapists do not equitably represent the populations we serve,” Longbottom said. “This situation is critical in that it impacts health outcomes for the affected groups and, thus, the health and wellness of our society. While race and ethnicity are a part of this, they are not the only factors. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) also includes within their definition of underrepresented minorities people with disabilities, individuals with educationally disadvantaged backgrounds such as first-time college students, and people from underrepresented geographic areas and more challenging socioeconomic levels.”

Humberto Perez: Expanding Access in a Rural Community

Portrait of Humberto Perez

Perez, who graduated in December 2023, is working to expand quality health access to his hometown of Zapata, Texas. According to the 2020 United States Census, 5,383 people live in the rural South Texas community that sits along the Rio Grande, between Laredo and McAllen.

“Zapata is a small community with limited access to healthcare services,” Perez said. “Most residents usually travel out of town to receive services.”

With a lack of physical therapy options nearby, Perez is providing service to his underserved community and adjacent rural towns. To help achieve his goal, he set his focus on closely collaborating with local colleagues.

“My biggest goal is to increase health and wellness through physical therapy services,” Perez said. “I serve patients by helping them restore functional mobility in their daily lives. I am collaborating with colleagues in both the education and physical therapy professions.”

Perez appreciated the accessibility provided by Baylor’s DPT hybrid model, as it allowed him to simultaneously earn his degree and build trusted influence within his community. In turn, the scholarship committee took notice of Perez’s aspirations.

“It was a very competitive field. However, Beto clearly was at the top with the committee collectively identifying his strengths in representing the department’s core values,” Longbottom said. “We also focused on his insights into impacting his community in rural south Texas after graduation, with goals related to advocacy, increasing access to physical therapy, and promoting health and wellness.”

La-Dayijah Cook: Shifting the Narrative

Portrait of La-Dayijah Cook

Cook’s route to becoming a physical therapist was sparked in high school when she became a student athletic trainer and quickly realized it was an environment she enjoyed. Unfortunately, she discovered that joining a DPT program was more difficult than anticipated – but she finally found a home at Baylor – and the scholarship serves as a reminder that she belongs in Baylor’s DPT program.

“I appreciate that Baylor gave me a chance when most schools wouldn’t,” Cook said. “I was waitlisted with multiple programs, and I was on the brink of giving up on my dreams when Baylor gave me a shot. I was starting to feel like I wasn’t enough. But now I’m constantly reminded by faculty, and my colleagues, that we are all here for a reason. I earned my right to be here, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity that has been given to me.”

As a part of cohort 2024, Cook feels blessed to be the scholarship recipient.

“Being awarded this scholarship meant the world to me,” Cook said. “It came at a time in my life when it was really hard for me to remember why I’ve been doing all of this. My grandmother, who helped mold me into the person I am today, passed away due to her long-fought battle with cancer, just one month before I received this scholarship. She was the young mother, of a young mother, who died at the youthful age of 60. She struggled with many chronic ailments, and a lot of them were a product of her lifestyle and environment. I am in a position to teach people in my community that there are better ways to live their lives.”

Cook intends to impact people in underserved communities. She wants to instill the importance of living an active lifestyle because it can reduce the risk of chronic disease. She plans to lead fitness bootcamps, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and personal training sessions. 

“This can open my community’s mind to the importance of health and wellness, and hopefully spark interest in PT within young minds around me,” Cook said. “These will be donation-based, with no minimum donation, with the proceeds going to purchasing equipment to grow the classes.”

Life experiences shaped her professional goals. As a young girl, Cook recalls not seeing doctors who looked like her, and because that lack of representation was immense, she wants to change that for new generations. She desires to see a trend of growing minority numbers among physical therapists.

“I find it very important to shift the narrative for people who look like me,” Cook said. “I want to show other young black girls from my community that there are options in life, and that they don’t have to settle for the careers they see the people who look like them in their community choose. I never saw black women as doctors where I am from. So, when I was young, I never imagined I’d come as far as I have. I thought the most success I’d be able to achieve is earning a bachelor’s and teaching. I want to be part of the movement to increase diversity within the profession, by showing others that it is possible.”

A Scholarship’s Impact

In addition to the anonymous donor, the scholarship fund has received direct contributions from Baylor DPT faculty and outside donations. The committee members hope the fund will continue to grow, and they are keenly aware that helping to alleviate some financial strain will allow their students to immerse themselves in the physical therapy profession. Light the Way Scholarship recipients will receive the scholarship funding during each of their two years in the DPT program.

“We need to support students to be able to learn, live and serve within their communities to expand high-quality healthcare across all communities,” Feda said. “We want to foster this vision through our hybrid DPT program offering accessible, high-quality DPT education. This vision cannot be fully realized without scholarship funding to help phenomenal people with great vision recognize a strong physical therapy education at Baylor is accessible and this is where they belong.”

How to Donate

If you would like to donate to the DPT Light the Way Scholarship fund, please click here.

“Our graduates are going out into the world to meet the health needs of society, representing Baylor and this program in a wonderful way,” Longbottom said. “This scholarship enables donors to be a part of that positive impact.”