Group of people play cornhole. Woman in the foregroun tosses a bag that is midair.
A cornhole competition is among the events in the VCU-Marquette Challenge, a fundraiser for the Foundation for Physical Therapy Research. (Courtesy of Maya King)

VCU PT students win fundraising challenge to benefit physical therapy research

The money raised for this challenge will fund research grants, fellowships and scholarships to advance the field of physical therapy.

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For the third year in a row, students from the Department of Physical Therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Health Professions have won the VCU-Marquette Challenge, a fundraiser for the Foundation for Physical Therapy Research.

“It’s pretty cool how many people care about fundraising for our profession and helping it grow and progress,” said Maya King, a third-year physical therapy student at VCU and the VCU-Marquette Challenge Coordinator for the Class of 2023. “The challenge has really made it clear to me that we can help patients and help progress the field of physical therapy.”

Students at Marquette University started the challenge in 1989, wanting to raise funds for the foundation, a national nonprofit that funds physical therapy research grants, fellowships and scholarships. In the past three decades, physical therapy and physical therapist assistant students from more than 300 schools have participated, raising a collective $4.6 million to support the foundation’s mission. The top three schools for the 2021-2022 challenge were VCU ($23,053.72), the University of Delaware ($20,050.04) and the University of Miami ($17,344.30).

“The challenge is a huge contributor to our ability to carry out our mission,” foundation spokeswoman Jordan Jennings said. “The challenge represents our single largest annual fundraising effort.”

“As part of this prestigious competition, our students are helping to provide numerous opportunities for physical therapy research,” said Susan Parish, Ph.D., dean and Sentara Professor of Health Administration in the College of Health Professions. “I am extraordinarily proud of their continued success and the remarkable impact they are making across the physical therapy field."

For winning the challenge last year, VCU cohosted the 2021-2022 Marquette Challenge and had its name added to the title. For the challenge, physical therapy students volunteer and organize various fundraising events throughout an academic year. Last year’s events included a cornhole tournament, a golf tournament and March Madness bracket challenge.

“When students participate in the challenge at any level, they make an investment that strengthens their future profession,” Jennings said. “Further, students who participate gain valuable leadership skills and experience that contribute to their professional growth and networks”

King enjoyed the experience and saw the challenge as a way to become more connected with her classmates and faculty. She spent long hours organizing fundraising events and had to coordinate with faculty and staff. 

“I started my program at VCU during the pandemic, and I wanted to get involved in something,” King said. “I wanted a way to feel more connected to my classmates and the program since we were doing everything on Zoom.”

Shawne Soper, D.P.T, an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Physical Therapy, has been the longtime faculty coordinator for this challenge. She helped the students organize events and worked to keep the fundraising effort going.

When Soper took over coordinating the challenge in 2015, VCU came in second place. The students came to her and said they wanted to win the 2015-2016 challenge. That required a plan. She worked with the students and helped them develop a systematic way to manage fundraisers throughout the school year. That has been the case every year since and is a key reason the school has been so successful. VCU has placed either first or second in this challenge every year since 2015.

Soper said she has enjoyed the position and has loved working with the students. The challenge brings prestige to the physical therapy program and VCU.

“Organizing the challenge checks so many boxes for students,” Soper said. “It’s a great opportunity for leadership development, organized social events, and professional development. It has been so wonderful watching these students blossom in these leadership roles.”

For next year’s challenge, Chad Taylor, D.P.T., an assistant professor in the VCU Department of Physical Therapy, is taking over as coordinator for Soper, who is retiring in the fall. The challenge has become an important part of the physical therapy program at VCU, and Taylor said he is honored to continue the work.

Taylor said the challenge is supposed to be fun. Students and faculty work together to raise money for the profession. Most of the events are entertaining and a great way for everyone to bond.

“These are excellent team-building exercises and great to get the students involved in the school,” Taylor said. “It’s also a great way for students and faculty to interact outside of the classroom setting.”

Taylor said physical therapy students past and present should be proud of the role VCU has played in raising money for the Foundation for Physical Therapy Research. VCU is one of the top schools to raise funds for the foundation since the challenge was started.

The award ceremony was held virtually, and King was one of the presenters, given that VCU won the award last year. She said that while she was the leader of the challenge this year, everyone who helped organize the various fundraisers played a key role. The effort would not have been possible without a huge help from everyone.

“It’s been a lot of work, but it has been an amazing experience,” King said. “It has been amazing to see how many of us want to come together to help out with this effort.”