Department of History

Valerie Shuman

Date of degree: 2008 Bachelor of Arts in History

Current position: Post-Doctoral Associate, University of Pittsburgh, Department of Physical Therapy

Without fail, my disclosure to patients and colleagues that I majored in history in undergrad elicits surprised reactions. I am a physical therapist and board-certified specialist in geriatric physical therapy. Most individuals in my field were athletic trainers or exercise physiologists; an erudite few may have been biology or mechanical engineering majors. I have met very few physical therapists who majored in history. To that I say, it’s a shame.

The study of history defies categorization—it applies to everything. The profession of physical therapy has a history, and it is essential for me to be able to trace the lines between past practices and current professional barriers. My patients all have histories; their life experiences affect their rehabilitation after the conditions I treat, such as strokes and other brain injuries. My knowledge of past events, cultures, and societies contextualizes the expectations I have for their recovery. My studies in the history department at Pitt prepared me to examine the relationships between individuals and the society around them.

I was drawn to courses around war and conflict resolution in the History, Political Science, and English departments. In these studies, you have to be able to look at both broad social movements and individual actions to create a cohesive story for how a conflict came into being, and even more so to understand the difficulties in untangling and deescalating the conflict. I am now a PhD student in Rehabilitation Science and my area of interest is not a clean-cut topic. I rely on my skills gained as an undergrad to piece together the convoluted factors that contribute to mobility disability in older adults and the myriad ways health professionals and others can address it.

While at Pitt, I was actively engaged in Model UN and the Student Global AIDS Project. Some of my best memories are of traveling with the MUN team, finding nooks in the library to study in, and helping my Quo Vadis friends make specialty ornaments to sell at the holidays to support the Nationality Rooms every year. My focus shifted in my junior and senior year to taking the pre-requisite classes for physical therapy programs, but I always kept my feet firmly planted in the History department.

My history degree gifted me with a confidence in understanding complex topics, strong writing skills (which are essential in the sciences!), and the ability to hold conversations on any number of topics with my patients as I push them to do the hard work of their therapy. History, in short, gifted me with the ability to pleasantly surprise any military veteran patient who asks, “so, what do you know about the Vietnam War?”