Tyler Dunham and his family

The Pursuit of a Lifelong Career


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It’s Monday morning at 5:00 a.m. and although his family is still sleeping, Tyler Dunham begins his day by opening his textbooks, studying and preparing for the day ahead. By 7:00 a.m., he’s on campus ready to spend the next eight to 10 hours in class, learning all there is to know about becoming a physical therapist assistant (PTA). By 7:00 p.m., he and his wife put their daughter to bed and it’s back to the books until midnight or 1:00 a.m. Four hours later, he wakes to do it all again knowing the sacrifice he’s making will all be worthwhile.

A student in Hodges’ physical therapist assistant program (PTA), Dunham admits, “This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done; however, you learn to adapt to the schedule.” As a full-time student whose schedule consists of attending class all day, Monday through Friday, the rest of his day is devoting to spending time with his wife and daughter, studying, and sleeping, and while he has adjusted to this new lifestyle, it isn’t the first time Dunham’s adapted to changes.

Growing up in Ohio as the youngest of five, Dunham never considered himself a “good” student. Lacking the motivation to take his studies seriously, he tried college after high school only to realize his heart wasn’t in it at the time. As a result, he set his sights on joining the military, and at 19 years old, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“My dad was in the Army during the Vietnam War, but I wouldn’t consider us a ‘military family,’” he said, and although it wasn’t a situation of following in his dad’s footsteps, once Dunham entered the military, he knew he wanted to become a green beret, or so he thought.

Tyler and his wife, Gabriel

Tyler and his wife, Gabriel

Entering into the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) program, or “21 Days in Hell” as it is known, Dunham was 21 years old and had just received the rank of specialist. Having worked in small arms repair fixing various weapons, he was looking to become a weapons sergeant; however, he remembers being told, “Why don’t you come back when you have combat experience.”

Deploying to Afghanistan in 2011, he spent one year serving as an M240 gunner. Fixing weapons for Special Forces and different infantry/ranger battalions, he said, “They looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you can fix weapons, so you probably know how to shoot weapons very well.’”

Returning from deployment in 2012, the idea of making a career out of the military was no longer his dream, and after four years of service, he was honorably discharged from the army in 2013 and moved to Florida. His mom, who works as a travel nurse, was living in the area. After visiting a few times on leave from the military, he wasted no time in making Florida his new home.

Transitioning to civilian life, he considered two options: become a civilian pilot or a physical therapist assistant. Unable to make the dream of becoming a pilot happen, his mom encouraged him to go to school, and with much experience working with physical therapists and PTAs because of numerous shoulder surgeries, he began searching for PTA programs in the area.

After arriving in Florida in 2013, he accepted a position with LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples where he met the husband of one of Hodges’ former staff members. “I met Maria Vacca’s husband while working there and he told me all about Hodges and how I should check out their PTA program,” he said.

At Hodges, I feel like I’m learning a career, and it’s only a year of my time, – Tyler Dunham

Enrolling in the biomedical sciences bachelor’s degree program in 2014, his goal was to complete his prerequisites in order to be accepted into the PTA program; however, life brought about changes when he married his wife, Gabriel, and was forced to undergo a third shoulder surgery in 2015. Trying to get into the PTA program at the time, his shoulder kept him from being able to move forward, so he dropped out and the two, now pregnant with their daughter, Bijou, moved back to Ohio for a short time.

“I didn’t want to stop what I started at Hodges, so I enrolled in online classes through Columbus State Community College, thinking I’d go into civil engineering,” he said.

In November 2015, the couple moved back to Naples and Dunham immediately re-enrolled at Hodges. Completing his prerequisites in 2016, he was accepted into the PTA program at the start of January 2017.

Tyler and his daughter, Bijou

Tyler and his daughter, Bijou

Entering into a program with such a demanding schedule, he is unable to work, and since his wife is also a full-time student studying to become a speech pathologist, the two are making ends meet with the help of Dunham’s GI Bill and housing allowance.

Admitting the time commitment is a large sacrifice, he is rewarded in knowing he is working toward accomplishing something that will provide him with a lifelong career. “At Hodges, I feel like I’m learning a career, and it’s only a year of my time,” he said.

“My wife is the rock holding it all together. She takes classes online, takes care of our daughter and has been nothing but supportive through it all,” he said. In addition, Dunham gives credit to his professors, Dr. Cynthia Vaccarino, Dr. Sharon Dickmann and others in Hodges’ PTA program, saying, “They’re very motherly, and they make sure you’re going to get it done. The program is structured much like the military.”

Planning to complete the program in December 2017, there are a few additional steps he must take before becoming a full-time PTA, such as studying for his boards, which he will take in April 2018. Until students pass their boards, they may work under a physical therapist with a temporary license in Florida for up to six months.

Although his goal was to become a green beret at one time, his focus has shifted, and with his degree, Dunham’s goal is to work in the field of sports rehabilitation. “Ultimately, I would like to go on and get my Doctor of Physical Therapy,” he said. “But, it’s my wife’s turn to complete her education, so once I get my degree, I want to be there for her like she’s been there for me.”