Ryan Felder

Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College

"Growing up in rural SC, I observed how people are treated in hospitals and different settings. It made me want to be an advocate for people who aren’t treated fairly."

Before he became a doctor of physical therapy, Ryan Felder was a graduate of the University of South Carolina’s exercise science program. He knew he wanted to continue his journey in a medical profession, but wasn’t sure of the direction to take. Enter the SC Technical College System.

What made you head back to school after getting your undergraduate degree?

When I graduated from the University of South Carolina, I was trying to figure out which graduate degree program I wanted to get into and which route I wanted to take. My GPA wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t competitive enough for the grad programs I was looking at. 

I took some courses at Midlands Technical College to rebuild that GPA at an affordable cost, and that also gave me a taste of different medical fields. Eventually, I found the physical therapy assistant program at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. Since I had most of the requirements, it only took me a year to graduate from that program. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in physical therapy until I got into my clinical rotation where I fell in love with working with the patients. I was smiling when I left work, and I wasn’t even getting paid for it! That’s how I decided to go further and get my doctorate in physical therapy at the University of St. Augustine.

Why did you decide to get into the medical field?

I had a few experiences growing up in a rural town in the Low Country of South Carolina. I remember standing in the living room while my grandfather was having a heart attack. I didn’t know much about the treatment he needed, but I knew it would take the ambulance forever to get there because we were so far out in the country. For me, the questions were, “Would he get the care he needed as quickly? Would he get the care he needed because he was African-American?”

As I grew up, I observed how people are treated in hospitals and different settings. It made me want to be an advocate for people who aren’t treated fairly. It’s not just minorities, but also people who may not have the most money or are on Medicaid. People are treated differently for so many reasons, and they need somebody there for them.

It makes a big difference when you feel like somebody is on your side. When you’re in pain or need medical attention, you’re vulnerable and trusting your vulnerability with a medical professional.

What was your perception of technical college?

When I graduated high school, I had it in my mind that I was going to get my Bachelor’s degree. After graduating from college, my mindset changed. There’s more to it than just the kind of degree you’re getting. I focused on the value in things and how I could add value to myself.

That was a big part of choosing to go to a technical college. I didn’t think, “Oh, this degree is higher and this one’s lower.” I knew I could get valuable skills, grow myself as a person, and get certified to work.

Tell us about your experience in the PTA program.

At the time, the program was taught by two physical therapists. The way they set up the program made it easier for me to learn. There were specific hours where you could get direct help, and they taught lessons based on how you were learning. If you’re not learning it this way, they taught it a different way.

The flexibility of the professors and the flexibility of the program helped me learn smarter, rather than spending hours beating my head against a brick wall.

Was there any benefit to having actual physical therapists as your instructors?

100%. They’re not just teaching from the book. They can mention a patient they saw or how to use a lesson in daily life. One of my professors was running a race and a person collapsed. She was able to test the patient and figure out they were having a stroke, and then she was able to keep that person alive until help got there. You gain so many different skills that you can utilize in daily life, with family and with patients. 

Knowing what is out there — opportunities for education, volunteer work, advocacy for the field and for the community — there’s so much more than what’s in the book. They were able to lay out the possibilities. Those life experiences come alive a little bit more in the classroom, and that motivates me to seek more.

How else did OCTech help you along your journey?

They had a push for learning soft skills when I was there, which was something that isn’t often mentioned in the classroom. It was very refreshing to have that because it taught the importance of being professional, collaborating, and talking to patients and other healthcare professionals. 

When I’m communicating with a patient, they really appreciate it. Their physician may only have 15 minutes to be with them, but we’re with them for an hour. We can explain the “why” of what is happening instead of making them feel that they won’t understand because it’s a medical thing.

When I’m communicating with physicians or case managers, I’m able to utilize professional terminology, get the patient’s point across, discuss what we’re seeing in therapy, and how it’s affecting their function. If I can explain to a physician what I’m seeing through my assessment, we can adjust the treatment together and help the patient more.

What advice would you give others thinking about their educational future?

Get everything you can from it because it’s more than just an exam, quiz, or textbook. There’s knowledge you can get from the professor, there’s experience you can gain, there’s opportunities to learn the route in life you want to take. Seek out different organizations you can get involved with so you can learn how to be a leader and how to apply those skills. There’s more than just going to a class and taking a test.