DWU's athletic training program ramps up to a leading role

The improvement of Dakota Wesleyan University's athletic training program could be looked at somewhat like a successful injury rehabilitation. When the program turned to the 21st century, there wasn't much success. It was maligned with students s...

Dakota Wesleyan University senior and athletic training student Kristen Longville helps DWU quarterback Shaye Slaughter stretch his legs as the Tigers' defense is on the field during a game against Dakota State University on Thursday, Aug. 23 at Joe Quintal Field in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Dakota Wesleyan University senior and athletic training student Kristen Longville helps DWU quarterback Shaye Slaughter stretch his legs as the Tigers' defense is on the field during a game against Dakota State University on Thursday, Aug. 23 at Joe Quintal Field in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The improvement of Dakota Wesleyan University's athletic training program could be looked at somewhat like a successful injury rehabilitation.

When the program turned to the 21st century, there wasn't much success. It was maligned with students struggling to pass the exam to become certified and the curriculum was underwhelming.

Almost two decades later, the DWU's program has taken some leaps forward as one of the university's most popular majors, and the proof is in the school's alumni.

On the Board of Certification test, which allows athletic training graduates to become certified, 46 DWU students have taken the test and 45 passed on the first attempt since 2013-14, including 32 in the last three years. Likewise, nearly 97 percent of the school's graduates become employed or enrolled in further education programs within six months of graduation.

At a college of fewer than 1,000 students, about 55 are involved in the athletic training program in some level. Starting this year, the university is offering a master's program in athletic training, allowing students to complete the undergraduate and graduate level courses in five years instead of the traditional six-year route. It's one of only three master's degrees offered at DWU.


The program took on a culture change to make that happen.

Lana Loken, who serves as DWU's clinical education coordinator and an athletic training preceptor and professor, said the program has bred success since she started working at DWU 18 years ago with her colleague Dan Wagner, the director of the athletic training education program.

"When we first came here in 2001, they didn't have a history of success," Loken said. "But the biggest thing was that we changed our expectations. It was OK here to have that (underachieving) environment. And we didn't accept that. We expected a higher standard, so our students expect that, and when they talk to incoming students, they tell you, this will be hard but it will be worth it."

It makes for an interesting time in the athletic training profession in South Dakota, where the jobs are tightly concentrated and competitive. Jobs are expected to grow nationally, but it's hard to say what that means for rural South Dakota, which is largely underserved.

Making changes

The program's changes were led by Loken and Wagner, who successfully lobbied DWU's administration for more resources to successfully grow it from more than just learning the basics. That included teaching key courses in the curriculum every year, rather than rotating them to save money.

"We said for us be successful, we're going to need to be able to do this, and we have to teach classes every year," Loken said. "Since then, we've always aggressively grown and done what we can."

The advantages for DWU, the program leaders say, is that they are able to be hands-on with DWU's athletes and fellow students. For example, students lead rehabilitations of athletes under the supervision of instructors, an option the instructors say wouldn't be as hands-on as it would be at an NCAA Division I university.


"We have seniors out there working with rehabilitations," said Wagner, who was recognized as South Dakota's athletic training educator of the year in 2018. "At South Dakota State University, a student doesn't get to work with (eventual NFL tight end) Dallas Goedert. That just doesn't happen."

Loken said there's no restrictions put on student athletic trainers getting clinical practice from DWU coaches, which gives the students independence to take ownership in critical thinking and decision-making.

Combined with a state-of-the-art athletic training and sports medicine facility in the DWU/Avera Sports and Wellness Complex completed in 2016, Loken said DWU has been early adopters of the technology, too. The university's iPad initiative goes hand-in-hand with apps that make learning anatomy and bone structure more easily digestible for students, she said.

DWU's master's program includes three years of prerequisite courses, ranging from basic medical terminology to microbiology and abnormal psychology. After the spring semester in the student's junior year, the master's education spans summer, fall and spring for two years to set up students with a master's degree.

"It's three years of saying, 'Hang on,'" Wagner said.

In the last semester of master's degree study, students participate in a clinical immersion course, which allows them to take part in a professional training setting similar to student teaching for education majors. That can take place wherever, as long as a student is accepted and can afford to live in that location.

"You don't get a bachelor's degree but that's not that uncommon anymore," said Wagner, noting that some medical schools, such as the University of South Dakota, don't require a bachelor's degree as long as students have a high Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, score and enough prepatory credit hours.

DWU's move to go to master's-focused curriculum centered around a 2015 decision from the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education, which accredits colleges with programs. They announced the professional level for aspiring trainers would require a master's degree, not a bachelor's degree, which forced some colleges to make changes in how their program was laid out.


DWU was the first South Dakota university to make the move to the master's degree program in five years, but South Dakota State University has since began to offer the route, and Augustana is beginning to offer a master's program, as well.

Morgan Ziegler is currently a senior at DWU, hailing from Tripp. Although she's now months away from her bachelor's degree in the field, she freely admitted she didn't even fully understand the role of athletic trainers prior to DWU.

"We didn't have one in Tripp but when I got to DWU, everyone talked about how it was so great," she said.

After graduation, Ziegler intends to go to chiropractic school in Iowa. After that, she intends to return to South Dakota and work as a chiropractor, which she says will take about 3 1/3 years. If she were to do it again, she would take advantage of the master's opportunity that students can now use.

Ziegler has been able to work closely with athletes since she was a sophomore, and said it's experience she wouldn't trade at all.

"I just feel like we are challenged so much as students, and they know what we're capable of and where we want to go," she said. "It's hands-on learning from the start."

Unique perspectives

Dr. Donella Herman would qualify as one of the program's most esteemed recent graduates, working at some big-name universities: she went to graduate school at Virginia and served a sports medicine fellowship at Duke.

She now works for Sanford Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Sioux Falls after graduating from medical school at the University of South Dakota. Herman works in primary care sports medicine, covering non-surgical orthopedics and working with sprains and strains.

She provides a unique perspective, given that she was at DWU before its current program leadership got into place and her route to her current job.

"When I came in there in 2000, it was a bit more lax before they were there," she said. "DWU had just become accredited. ... (Now), they make sure that the students get involved. You don't get to be a wallflower in that training room."

Similarly, the profession as a whole has improved.

"There's so much better focus on quality as much as quantity," Herman said. "There used to be a focus on the hours and how many hours you were in the training room. And they've cut back on that and you aren't just there to be there now."

Some of that centers on concussion training. Wagner, the director of the athletic training education program at Dakota Wesleyan, said about 15 years ago the American Academy of Neurology grading methods for concussions at that time were based on three categories: whether an athlete was conscious, unconscious for more than 5 minutes or fewer than 5 minutes.

"Now, we know that's nonsense," Herman said. "It's a concussion and we treat it accordingly, regardless of the severity. We realize how detrimental that can be and the long-term consequences of that."

Ian Lackey made two stops in his career to become a certified athletic trainer at the University of South Dakota. A 2014 graduate of DWU's undergraduate program, he advanced to graduate school in Vermillion and worked as a graduate student before being hired full-time with USD's athletic programs.

Originally from Kansas, Lackey picked DWU because he knew he wanted to play football and be an athletic training major, something that few NAIA-level schools could offer.

Unfortunately for Lackey, his football career for DWU had a number of injuries. But as an athletic training student, nobody could better understand the balance between care as a medical provider and the pain of being inured.

"Empathy is a huge part of athletic training and you have to understand what they're feeling," Lackey said. "They feel terrible and broken down ... and there's a huge psychological portion to the job that you can kind of understand when you're in that position."

Lackey credits DWU for doing a strong job of helping students applying knowledge from the classroom to the training table. Between his time tending to Tigers and Coyotes, he's worked in training rooms since 2011.

As a former graduate assistant, Lackey has some fears that internships and graduate assistantships might go to the backburner nationally with the rule change to master's programs being the standard.

"There's positives and negatives," Lackey said of the change. "The job market is good but it's hard to say that we know how it will all work."

Herman said that change will likely make for a stronger profession, but it will probably cut down on students who use an athletic training education to jump to physical therapy or chiropractic school.

"It's going to shrink the field a little bit, but I think we'll have better quality trainers and hopefully, it makes everyone more valuable in the marketplace," she said.

A look to the future

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of athletic trainers is supposed to grow 23 percent nationally between 2016 and 2026, faster than the average occupation. That is because people are expected to become more aware about the effects of sports injuries, namely concussions, and individuals are likely to stay active as they get older.

According to 2017 data, there's 120 athletic trainers employed in South Dakota, which is the second-highest concentration of jobs in the nation based on population, ranking only behind New Hampshire. Almost all of those jobs are on the eastern side of the state, with about 70 jobs estimated in the Sioux Falls region, followed by another 40 jobs in the eastern, non-metro parts of South Dakota, according to BLS. The average annual salary for an athletic trainer in South Dakota is $44,130, which ranks behind Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and only slightly ahead of the average for North Dakota.

Herman said athletic trainers are underutilized in South Dakota compared to other states and could take a larger role in helping physicians or chiropractors.

"I think that people think about athletic trainers in the traditional sense and there are a lot of different roles for them," she said. "South Dakota is a little behind and we could afford to use those people more extensively."

On the high school level, the South Dakota High School Activities Association, for example, doesn't mandate that schools have athletic trainers but, with a rule change enacted this year, requires schools have a medical professional on site for games. South Dakota state law requires athletes removed from an SDHSAA sport to receive an evaluation from a licensed health-care professional trained in concussion management before returning to play.

Every Class AA high school in the state has a listed athletic trainer, while 63 percent of Class A high schools have trainers, according to each school's page on the SDHSAA website. Among Class B schools, 41 percent of the schools or co-ops have trainers, and only three of those schools are located West River.

While more schools are adding athletic trainers to their staffs on game nights, rural schools still find that position hard to fund, Wagner said. One possible solution, he said, is for students interested in teaching and athletic training to additionally study biology, for example. Those prospective teachers could then also be available to high schools as athletic trainers, too.

"We have to have some creative solutions," Wagner said. "These are critical jobs and we have the students who are capable of filling them."

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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