Virginia Western Community College. Courtesy of the school.

Virginia Western Community College announces today that it is launching a new physical therapy assistant program, along with two other in-demand associate degrees, that will offer students a more affordable – even tuition-free – path to careers that pay more than $60,000 a year.

The three programs – physical therapy assistant, surgical technology and occupational therapy assistant – were formerly housed within Jefferson College of Health Sciences in downtown Roanoke, which in 2019 merged with Radford University and Carilion Clinic to form Radford University Carilion, or RUC. Radford being a four-year institution, plans began that same year to transition its two-year offerings to Virginia Western.

The new PTA program will launch this fall with 24 students. Classes begin Aug. 22. 

Jordan Tucker. Courtesy of Virginia Western.

Other than a change of classroom address from downtown Roanoke to Virginia Western’s campus, the incoming class of 24 students shouldn’t see a difference in curriculum, according to Virginia Western PTA program director Jordan Tucker. Tucker herself was hired from RUC, and she says the faculty and curriculum will be the same as before. 

The only change students should really see is cost.

“The quality of education, the equipment and accreditation should be about the same,” said Tucker. “Affordability is a big plus of all the educational degrees moving over here.”

Thanks to Virginia Western’s public-private Community College Access Program, or CCAP, students can receive full-tuition scholarships to attend. In addition, Virginia’s G3 program offers grants for students who qualify for state financial aid and are pursuing one of Virginia’s most in-demand industries, which includes health care.

Jayden Glass. Courtesy of Glass.

Jayden Glass, 20, of Vinton is in the inaugural class. Since his cross-country days at William Byrd High School, Glass has wanted to be in health care as he helped a teammate work through an injury. He first contemplated an emergency medical technician degree, but shifted to physical therapy as a less stressful lifestyle. 

His first year will be covered by CCAP, and he estimates the total cost – assuming no additional financial aid – will be no more than $9,000 that he can cover with savings from his swim coach job.

“If it was at Radford or Jefferson or somewhere private, I would have had to work a lot more and not have as much time to study,” said Glass. “So I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be able to go through this program and not have to worry about payment and focusing on my studies.”

One of Glass’ classmates, Lyrie Gilbert, 23, of Rocky Mount, graduated Radford University in 2020 with a degree in health and exercise science. Since then she’s worked at Intercept Health as a registered behavioral technologist, but as a fitness guru, she wants a career that features exercise and physical therapy. 

When she found out about the Virginia Western program, she was thrilled because it’s the same education as what RUC offered, “but for a cheaper price.”

“It’s supposed to be close to $11,000,” said Gilbert, “but I got G3 funding for this year so it basically pays for my entire year and books. It’s smart.”

Leilani Dribble. Courtesy of Dribble.

Stomping out a different path to PTA is 44-year-old Leilani Dribble. 

From 2004 to 2010, the San Francisco native performed around the U.S. and abroad in the dance show “STOMP.” She became a yoga instructor along the way and moved to Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina before finally settling in Roanoke in 2019 with her toddler daughter to be close to her partner’s family. 

She chose to pursue the PTA degree because it offered a more recession-proof career, “and that’s what I’d been doing with yoga, helping people learn how to move, so I could do that in a more big girl way and have a better salary,” she said.

“I’m super jazzed about it. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity and have been accepted, to do well and get a good job that I enjoy.”

According to Tucker, there is strong demand for PTAs in long-term care facilities, acute care and rehabilitation hospitals, home health care and outpatient clinics. On average, entry-level PTAs earn $33 an hour for positions in the Roanoke Valley. 

The surgical technology degree should be a seamless transition from RUC to Virginia Western. Second-year students from RUC will finish their degrees this year at Virginia Western, which is leasing lab space at RUC, according to a news release. Incoming first-year students will complete their entire curriculum at Virginia Western. 

RUC will continue to offer the occupational therapy assistant program until Virginia Western completes the accreditation process that, according to the release, “includes hiring a program director, creating the laboratory, purchasing the equipment and developing the curriculum.” This should happen in time for Virginia Western to enroll an inaugural class of 20-24 students in fall 2025.

“Together, we recognize the needs of the regional workforce and are responsive to those needs,” said Marty Sullivan, dean of health professions at Virginia Western, who noted that more than 70% of graduates go straight into the workforce. “We know how important it is to keep the workforce pipeline growing so employers can find employees right out of local programs, and we’re creating creative solutions to meet those needs.” 

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who...