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June 2015

Even before college, Kaelah Shaffer had opened her heart to help those with medical needs.

And then when she came to Penn State, it was the Department of Kinesiology that opened doors.

More than 4,500 Penn State students are enrolled in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) studying a wide-array of fields, each committed to the concept of improving the quality of life for others. Shaffer, who found a home in the Department of Kinesiology, is one of those HHD students, and this is her story.

“I’ve always loved the health care field,” Shaffer said, explaining her deeply-rooted passion. Her mother was a hospice nurse, she said, and her family has always been interested in physical activity.

The Pittsburgh native graduated in May 2015 from the Department of Kinesiology.

Starting in high school, Shaffer worked as a home aid for a pair of brothers, both with muscular dystrophy. She helped with chores around the house and coordinated meal delivery through her local church.

Shaffer said she learned a great deal caring for the men, such as the importance of maintaining positive attitudes, and not to take health for granted.

“There are not bad or good circumstances, there are just circumstances,” she said.

The men, though bed-bound, kept a bright outlook, she said, which helped put her own life into perspective and also sparked some more enthusiasm about the work she wanted to do.

“I became interested in the human body,” she said. “Specifically, I’d like to focus on athletes and end-of-life care, and people with disabilities. All of these populations can benefit greatly from physical therapy.”

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Though Shaffer first got real-world medical experience before attending Penn State, she said her major presented her with a multitude of opportunities.

“The major is great preparation for a variety of jobs and careers,” she said. “Many of the classes teach about the human body and its many functions. There are a lot of different angles you can take with kinesiology. It’s a very holistic major.”

Shaffer worked for three years with Melissa Bopp, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, in the Physical Activity and Public Health lab. She conducted research with Bopp, and helped present their findings at the Penn State 2013 and 2014 Undergraduate Exhibitions and the 2014 Society for Behavioral Medicine Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Shaffer’s final project before graduation was to use data to connect participants’ subjective answers of self-reported health with their actual physical measures. This included looking at body mass index, resting blood glucose, the ability to do certain exercises like sit-ups, percent body fat index and grip strength.

“I was more interested in general markers of overall health,” Shaffer said of the project.

Shaffer was also a member of Global Medical Brigades, the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization.

“I attended a brigade to Panama in 2012, during which time we set up temporary clinics for underserved individuals,” she said. “This sparked my interest in global health, as well as attending to diverse populations.”

There are many chapters of Global Brigades across the world. The Penn State chapter works with more than 300 other university groups around the world to deliver and implement one of nine skill-based programs that benefit more than 130,000 Honduran and Panamanian, Ghanaian, and Nicaraguan community members annually. Global Medical Brigades develops sustainable health initiatives and provides relief where there is limited access to healthcare. Each community receives a brigade every three to four months where hundreds of patients are treated and volunteers deliver public health workshops. Electronic patient records are collected for future visitations and to monitor overall community health trends.

In the summer of 2014, Shaffer interned at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, during which she observed doctors in the traumatic brain injury and amputee units.

“They had a Military Advanced Training Center that is a state-of-the-art facility, equipped with the newest equipment for getting soldiers back in good health to either return to civilian life or even the line of duty,” she said.

Shaffer also held an internship at Drayer Physical Therapy in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, where she observed licensed therapists during treatment and assisted patients with exercise routines.

“I gained familiarity with equipment and standard procedures,” she said. “And I gained experience working with pediatrics, geriatrics and orthopedics.”

A peer mentor for Kinesiology students, Shaffer also served on the Kinesiology Club from 2011 to 2015. As secretary her final year, she had the opportunity to provide students with opportunities for leadership, hands-on experience, networking and certification programs. As secretary, she kept track of active membership, planned monthly agendas and managed the club’s email.

Shaffer plans to attend Drexel University in fall to obtain her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

In addition to Kinesiology, there are a variety of areas for students to study within HHD through the Departments of Biobehavioral Health, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Health Policy and Administration, Human Development and Family Studies, Nutritional Sciences, Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, and the School of Hospitality Management.