Physical Therapy Doctoral Candidate, Saiah Mays, Made Her Road by Walking

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Traveler, there is no road. You make the road by walking.” This pithy bit of wisdom easily applies to Physical Therapy doctoral candidate Saiah Mays. When she looks back on her journey, it makes perfect sense. Each step brought her closer to her vocation even when it wasn’t apparent to her.

It started during Saiah's childhood in Kingsland, Georgia. One day her little brother took a spill and injured his knee. Big sister Saiah swung into action, sizing up the injury with a careful eye and helping him make it home on two feet.

As she got older, Saiah began developing an appreciation for the ways we rely on our bodies not only to walk, but to run, to jump, to excel. She was an athlete in high school and served as coach of a children’s recreational track and field team.

“The rec team was a great outlet for kids in a small town,” she says. “And it was a free program, so having enough money to participate wasn’t an issue.”Photo of Karina Jougla

Saiah’s path continued to reveal itself at Columbia College. She began pre-med studies but became uncertain that being a physician would give her the kind of interaction with patients that she found fulfilling. Shifting her major to visual arts, she took an interest in medical illustration and completed an internship in the Department of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. However, she found the practice of scientific illustration too solitary.

“My mom taught me to be whatever I wanted to be... I've succeeded in the doctoral program because of this mindset and because of the support my classmates give each other...”

Then someone else with an injury entered Saiah’s midst. This time, it was her best friend, who was receiving therapy. Living as they did on the same floor, Saiah witnessed her friend’s experience up close.

“She was really committed to her healing process and effusive about all the things that went into the sessions with her therapist,” said Saiah.

Acting on a hunch, in the summer of her senior year Saiah sought out a volunteer internship at Advanced Rehabilitations, an outpatient clinic in her hometown back in Georgia. The decision was pivotal. At the clinic Saiah witnessed the high degree to which physical therapy deals with the movement of the body, something she understood well because of her medical illustration training. And she saw the significant number of hours therapists spend working with their patients. She was ecstatic.

When the time came to choose a graduate program, Saiah was drawn to Columbia’s Doctoral Degree Program in Physical Therapy. The program’s unique option to let students specialize in their third year, combined with its faculty’s welcoming demeanor, clinched her decision to enroll. She’s had zero regrets ever since.

“I come from a single-parent, low-income home and I’ve gone through life having to overcome stereotypes. My mom taught me to be whatever I wanted to be, even if I didn’t have the highest grades,” Saiah said. “I’ve succeeded in the doctoral program because of this mindset and because of the support my classmates give each other to absorb the material well, with no competition, knowing that we all want to get to the same place. Even the second and third year students have been available to provide guidance.”

Now a year into the doctoral program, Saiah finds neurology and acute, in-patient care especially compelling areas of practice. But her possibilities are still wide open. She’s excited to be well on her path, having made it by walking.


—Interviewed by Matthew Sholler, Office of the University Registrar

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Available Date(s): 
Friday, April 1, 2016 to Monday, August 1, 2016