Mariya Spencer knows what it's like to be frustrated and ready to give up during physical therapy. She has spent much of her life working with physical therapists and now, thanks to Tyler Junior College, she is providing new insight as she begins her career as a physical therapist assistant.
Miss Spencer, 24, a bilateral amputee whose lower legs are prosthetics due to a congenital defect, is among TJC's first class of physical therapist assistant graduates. She already is using her skills and personal connection to help others.
She was tossing around the idea of going back to school, possibly becoming a nurse in 2015, when she learned about a new program at the college.
"When I heard TJC was getting this program, I knew I had to be there," she said.
Miss Spencer threw herself into the program, but there were challenges. Attempting certain types of heavier lifts to help patients was causing her excruciating pain.
Miss Spencer was fitted with a new set of prosthetics that have enabled her to lift without as much pain.
"Mariya does not take the easy route on anything," Program Director Christine Melius said. "She would just figure out a way to make it work."
Having a student like Mariya in their first class of students also has helped the instructors. Melius said there have been times when Spencer has been able to help better explain what patients are going through.
"I think it's almost inappropriate to look at it as a limitation. I look at it as an opportunity to excel," Spencer said. "You learn to connect in a way that your peers won't."
The biggest challenge for Spencer was learning to safely adjust movements to keep herself and her patients safe.
"You need to recognize when you need to pull in other people," she said. "It was really humbling; there were times when my professors sat me down about it."
Melius said many students go into physical therapy because they have needed it at some point in their lives.
"She felt like she could really contribute to the profession," Melius said. "If you have a child born with some type of physical limitations, if that parent has the opportunity to talk to Mariya, it will give them a lot more hope."
Spencer already has accepted a job at East Texas Children's Therapy and is ready to make a difference.
Mariya is set to graduate Friday with the school's inaugural class of physical therapist assistant students. Melius said that every one of their initial class of 20 will walk the stage.
Tyler Junior College will confer 1,141 degrees on Friday at Wagstaff Gymnasium:
10 a.m. – School of Engineering, Mathematics and Sciences and the School of Humanities, Communications and Fine Arts
1 p.m. – School of Professional and Technical Programs
4 p.m. – School of Nursing and Health Sciences
Editor's Note: This updates an earlier version that had an incorrect headline.