Mohawk man achieves dream of becoming a doctor of physical therapy

·3 min read

Kanien’kehá:ka Jansen Atiatonharonkwen Nicholas is a trailblazer. Last week, he officially graduated from Columbia University with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

He is now officially Dr. Nicholas, something his communities, Kanesatake and Kahnawake, are immensely proud of.

Nicholas, 28, said that he has been on this journey for what feels like his whole life.

“I used to be a personal trainer, and I had clients with health issues. For the most part, it was okay, but then there were certain times when I felt out of my element,” said Nicholas.

“Especially with people that had certain conditions, for example, someone that has multiple sclerosis, and I did not know how to cater my services to their needs. It sparked something in me to want to dive more into how I can best provide my services to them.”

Another motivating factor for the new grad was the fact that many people in his family have suffered strokes. So, he decided to strive further and pursue his degree in the ivy leagues.

Nicholas studied Sports Marketing and Management at Champlain College, but he said that by the third year of the three-year program, he knew it was not for him.

“That is when I started looking into personal training.” He subsequently attended Syracuse University on a scholarship and studied Health and Exercise Science. Nicholas recounted that by his second year at Syracuse, he realized that he wanted to study physical therapy.

“I felt like a doctorate was the next logical step just because I felt like it would allow me to hone my skills and give me some more opportunities, especially going to an ivy league school. I really wanted to push myself to do something on a higher level,” said the new grad.

“Originally, I was on a waiting list, and I didn’t think I would get in. But I wanted to help prove that it doesn’t matter whatever institution it is; there can be Indigenous students that can thrive here and excel. And that was something that really pushed me to want to be here.”

Nicholas explained that his biggest challenge at Columbia was the pandemic since physical therapy is very hands-on, so it was hard to put into practice what he was learning. Luckily, as safety protocols waned, he was eventually able to put knowledge and skills into practice.

“I really want to continue to work in reservations. I completed my last clinical in Arizona on the Apache White River reservation. So, for nine weeks, I got to work with Indigenous people in Arizona, which was really eye-opening and really helped solidify what I wanted to do in this line of work,” said Nicholas.

His parents, Kahnawa’kehró:non Robin Sky and Kanehsata’kehró:non Jimmy Nicholas told The Eastern Door that they were both excited and proud of their son.

“He truly is living his best life and is preparing for his next chapter in his journey,” said Sky.

“Once he makes up his mind to do something, he looks straight forward and goes for his dreams. The journey has been during COVID and in New York. His internships brought him to connect with those most vulnerable, and knowing he worked in clinical settings with stroke and brain injury clients made me extra overwhelmed with pride.”

Sky said the family was able to attend his graduation ceremony via Zoom as he delivered a land acknowledgment.

Although Nicholas wishes he could return home to practice his profession, for the foreseeable future, he will remain in New York but hopes to go back to Arizona to continue to work with other Indigenous peoples.

“It’s not impossible. I have done it. It was not easy, but there are resources out there. It’s been a long journey, and I am grateful for all of the support.”

Marisela Amador, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

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