Alumni reflect on longevity, impact of Hazleton PTA program

The 40th anniversary celebration of Hazleton's physical therapist assistant program continues
Six people standing in a row.

Penn State Hazleton's physical therapist assistant program includes, from left: Ryan Mutter, academic coordinator of clinical education; Michele Yanuzzi, administrative support assistant; Gina Tarud, teaching professor; Rosemarie Petrilla, teaching professor and program coordinator; Joan Cope, laboratory assistant; and Kyle Greenawalt, instructor. Alana Carusotto, an instructor, is not pictured.

Credit: Penn State

HAZLETON, Pa. — Penn State Hazleton continues to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the accreditation of its physical therapist assistant (PTA) program, a milestone those close to the program said is a testament to its curriculum, rigor and reputation for producing skilled graduates ready to step into a variety of roles.  

Based on its initial accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) in 1983, Penn State Hazleton is tied for oldest existing PTA program in the state, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. It was the first physical therapy program at Penn State.  

“Thanks to a proud tradition of positive outcomes led by a dedicated, skilled and caring faculty, Penn State Hazleton’s physical therapist assistant program has enjoyed more than 40 years of success as one of the premiere programs in the state,” said Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth J. Wright. “We look forward to its continued growth and impact on the lives of not only our graduates, but those whose lives they touch with their care and compassion.” 


The start of the program can be traced back to 1977, when then-Chancellor William David began initial conversations about adding an associate in science in physical therapist assistant to the campus’ degree offerings. After receiving approval to launch the program in 1981, the first class of nine graduates completed the program the following year.  

By 1992, enrollment had ballooned to 45 students. To meet the growing demand, Rosemarie Petrilla was hired as the program’s third-ever full-time faculty member.  

Since then, Petrilla has served as an integral part of the program as it expanded its labs and classrooms in the lower level of the Physical Education Building and successfully completed several reaccreditation cycles. She was named program coordinator in 2002.  

"Making a difference every day. That’s been my number one rule,” Petrilla said of her relationship with her students. 

In 2010, a major renovation upgraded facilities with state-of-the-art classrooms and equipment for lab spaces in support of the program’s continued growth, which reached a cohort of 54 students.  

Several additional faculty members were hired to support the increasing enrollment, including Gina Tarud in 2007. Now a teaching professor of physical therapist assistant, she instructs students in their second and final year of the program in courses like therapeutic exercise, kinesiology, rehabilitation and special topics.  

“I’m most proud of the students we produce,” Tarud said of her time in the program. “Seeing where they start, where they end up and how much they have grown academically, professionally and personally.” 

Today, the program enjoys strong numbers in graduation rate, licensure exam pass rate and employment rate — a testament to its history and its role in the region, Petrilla said. 

“Northeastern Pennsylvania relies on this program to provide top-notch PTAs,” Petrilla said. “It’s an aging population that requires care, and employers really value our graduates. They want Penn State Hazleton students because they know what they’re getting.” 

Several graduates shared how the program prepared them for their careers and how it continues to impact them today: 

Steven Balut, 2011-13 

Steven Balut had already earned a bachelor’s degree and was well into his career when, at 28 years old, he found himself wanting a career that had meaning and could “get me in and out of school into work as quickly and as financially feasible as possible,” he said.  

“I chose PTA based on my general interest in exercising and eating healthy, but also really looking to make a change in the lives of people,” he said.  

The sense of purpose really hit home for Balut as he was watching a video about a man who received a hand transplant, he said, and saw the man’s struggle to relearn simple, everyday tasks.   

“As I was drinking coffee during the video, I caught myself holding my mug and it really made an impression on me of how much physicality it takes to live your everyday life,” he said. “I wanted to ensure other people had that ability.”  

Balut said he picked Penn State Hazleton’s program because it was one of the few in the region that was proven. He acknowledged the curriculum was challenging and at times, downright “overwhelming,” but credited the PTA faculty for putting him in a position to succeed.  

“Every single one of them were never too busy to help out. They enjoyed physical therapy as much as they enjoyed teaching,” he said. “Having a staff that also worked in the field made proving your skills to them and receiving their approval that much more satisfying that you're on the right path.”  

Balut completed his clinical rotation at PRO Rehabilitation Services in Plains Township, was recommended for a paid position by his clinical instructor based on how well he performed and has worked at the company’s Moosic location ever since, he said.   

He is now a clinical instructor himself and regularly works with PTA students from Penn State Hazleton — a full-circle moment for the program alumnus. 

“A good majority of my past students applied for and/or still work for Pro Rehab,” he noted.  

Sean Rogers, 2014-16

After suffering a serious sports injury, Sean Rodgers learned firsthand the life-changing effect physical therapy can have on a patient’s road to recovery.  

“I fell in love with the rehabilitation world after that and had my mind set to explore a career in it,” Rogers said.   

Now a doctor of chiropractic with his own practice in Hazle Township, Rogers credited Penn State Hazleton’s PTA program for not only preparing him to be a skilled physical therapist assistant, but also positioning him to succeed in the rigors of a doctorate program.  

“The PTA program was very tough in regard to the material we had to learn in such condensed time, but the faculty made it easy,” he said. “I felt extremely prepared for employment and working with patients due to how well we were taught and the hands-on experience we were given. Without the PTA program, I would have felt overwhelmed with the amount of material I would have to learn at the graduate level.” 

Rogers said he picked Penn State Hazleton’s program because it was close to home, but quickly came to appreciate the closeness of his student cohort and the care he felt from faculty.  

“They are the best professors and people I have met,” he said. “To this day, I still use techniques that I have learned in the program to help give my patients the best treatment I can offer.”

Emilee Barkus, 2015-17

As someone who always took pride in taking care of herself and others, Emilee Barkus knew physical therapy was the right career for her, she said.  

Through word of mouth — her mother’s best friend was a graduate of the program — she learned of Penn State Hazleton’s PTA degree and found it was ideal for her goals.  

“I liked that we did different types of rotations to get a feel for what setting would be best for me,” Barkus said. “It was fast paced, but the faculty took time to make sure you knew what you were doing before being put on rotation.” 

Seeking to build on her degree after graduation, Barkus elected to remain on campus and enrolled in the bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation and human services (RHS) program. When she graduated in 2019, she had earned an associate degree in physical therapist assistant and a bachelor’s degree in RHS in just four years on campus. 

Barkus completed an internship at Luzerne Intermediate Unit 29 in Minersville while in the RHS program and was hired as a long-term substitute until a full-time job opened, she said. She worked there until 2023, when she transitioned to home health care for Geisinger Health System. 

Barkus credited the foundation she received in the PTA program for giving her the broad knowledge to find success in multiple employment roles, she said. 

“It's longevity is warranted and well deserved,” she said. 

Thaddeus Dziedzic, 2016-18  

With a bachelor’s degree in marketing and communications already to his name, Thaddeus Dziedzic sought to build on those skills. At the same time, he wanted to make an impact on the lives of others, he said.  

His search for the next step in his career brought him to the PTA program at Penn State Hazleton, where the reputation of the program, the campus and the University stood out to him, he said. 

 “With the largest alumni network in the country, an established program known to prepare students for clinical excellence, and an impressive percentage of success with the board exam and career placement, Penn State Hazleton provides an unmatched experience,” Dziedzic said. 

Now as a manager who provides program startup and multi-site direction of outpatient therapy clinics at senior living settings in South Carolina, Dziedzic said he has an even stronger appreciation for the type of graduate the PTA program produces. 

“Working alongside — and supervising — clinicians in diverse settings, Penn State Hazleton develops the most productive and well-rounded individuals who provide effective, creative and efficient patient care,” he said. “Penn State Hazleton’s approach to prepare each student with compassionate and ethical care at the forefront provides the opportunity to be successful in any chosen setting.” 

Dziedzic said the PTA program prepares students to be consistent in their approach, due largely to the hands-on preparation and material review. 

“There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to therapy or an easy fix, but by learning best practices from the instructors at Penn State Hazleton, you’ll be able to be flexible and dynamic to best serve patients,” he said.  

Victoria Malloy, 2013-15 

Looking back on her experience in Penn State Hazleton’s PTA program, Victoria Malloy said it was nothing short of incredible.  

“After transferring from a large school to Penn State Hazleton, the most impressive aspect of the program was how deeply the professors genuinely cared for each and every student. They were not only incredibly knowledgeable but acted as our built-in counselors, cheerleaders and overall support staff,” Malloy said. “Having that personalized support is, in my opinion, crucial for success, and what sets Penn State Hazleton apart from so many other schools and programs.” 

Having been enrolled in a doctor of physical therapy program at the time, Malloy wanted a quicker path to employment and began researching PTA programs in the area, she said.  

Penn State Hazleton’s reputation, she said, spoke for itself. 

“First-attempt licensure exam pass rates, ultimate licensure exam pass rates and employment rates were the best out of any other program in the area by miles,” she said. 

After graduating, Malloy worked as a PTA for seven years, she said. She now works as a manager in medical equipment sales for Electrostim Medical Services, a door that was opened thanks to the array of skills she acquired at Penn State Hazleton, she said. 

“The program that has been developed and continuously fine-tuned over the past 40 years is the best of the best, and the students’ preparation for the ‘real world’ is a true testament to the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into making this program what it is today.” 

For anyone considering a career in physical therapy, she encouraged them to take a close look at Penn State Hazleton. 

“I met my lifelong friends at Penn State and formed bonds with people from all walks of life thanks to the diversity of both traditional and non-traditional students in the program,” she said. “When you graduate from Hazleton, you take with you a wealth of knowledge, friends that turn into family and an alumni network that can take you anywhere.”