Grad Stories '18: Max Tefo: 'Whispers' Led Him to a DPT


Grad Stories: Winter '18

Ask Max Tefo how he went from a budding professional career on soccer fields in Europe to the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at St. Ambrose University, and he is rather frank.

"Coming to America was a life sequence of events rather than a well-planned schedule," he said. And, that ‘sequence of events' was also influenced by words from his mother.

Tefo was awarded a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree during St. Ambrose University's 2018 Winter Commencement ceremony on December 15.

Tefo was born in Cameroon, Africa, and raised in France. He wanted to be a professional soccer player and was playing in Europe when he was approached by a coach who asked if he'd consider joining a college team in America. Tefo said he turned down the offer, knowing the sport was more well-established and played at a higher level where he was.

Yet, he told his mother about the offer, and she encouraged him to reconsider. "I have two sisters, and I am the oldest. My mother said if I were to get injured, I would not be able to take care of her or my sisters. As Africans, our duty is to take care of our families," he said.

He continued working toward a professional soccer career, but then injured an ankle. "After I was treated, it was hard for me to go back to the level I was at. I called the coach at Iowa Central Community College and asked if he still wanted me on the team. He said yes."

French was the only language Tefo knew so he spent most of his first semester in Iowa taking ESL classes. For the next two years, he took classes and played soccer, even traveling with the team to compete in nationals in New York. "We did very well," he said.

Tefo planned to complete his undergraduate education in Tennessee, but when he discovered scholarships would not cover his tuition, he returned to Iowa to attend, and play soccer for, a four-year Iowa school. "I played for one season, then I injured my left knee and had to have an ACL reconstruction."

Physical therapy was prescribed as part of his recovery, and the medical professionals who worked with Tefo were "very professional and they all looked very happy in their jobs," he said.

He graduated in 2013 with a major in biology, married SAU nursing graduate Diana Anni (Gukasov) ‘14, and then decided to apply for permanent residency status. The process and paperwork are highly involved and time-consuming, and while working through it Tefo said he was also considering his next step.

Tefo was interested in medical school and dental programs but wasn't sure either was the right fit for him. Then, in 2015, he attended an open house at SAU for the DPT program.

"I liked the medical field and I had been playing sports my whole life, so I went for it," he said. "I prayed I would get accepted into the program. For me, I needed something quick and something that would challenge me the right amount. The DPT program is 2.5 years, fast-paced, and at the end of the day you are accountable for your education." he said.

From playing to helping players

Max Tefo planned to be a professional soccer player in Europe, but an injury sidelined that goal. Early on, his mother encouraged him to pursue an education, and he did, earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

Learn more about our DPT program

Tefo joined the cohort in 2016 and completed three clinical internships: hospital-based patient rehab, hospital-based acute care, and center-based physical therapy and health medicine. "That is what I fell in love with," he said.

"I like the fact we can be independent and serve as our own health care system. Clients have direct access to physical therapy in Iowa and other states, so a patient can walk into a clinic and we can be the first to see that patient. It gives me more autonomy," he said.

The couple plans to spend the next two years working for Cariant Health Partners as a travel physical therapist and travel nurse. They will be sent across the U.S., placed as a couple, in cities with hospitals and medical centers that temporarily need staff.

Tefu said this will allow them to continue to explore and discover what comes next. The couple wants to find a nice city and neighborhood where they can raise their daughter — who is now three — before she starts kindergarten.

Tefo is thankful for his education, and for SAU. "I don't think I would have made it if I went somewhere else. We had a small cohort and the faculty always keep their doors open. It is insane. You can actually walk in, ask if they have a minute, and talk to a professor," he said.

"The people in my program are wonderful. They know all of us by name, every single detail about us," he said. In his case, they knew how much he missed his family, and professor Michael Puthoff, PhD, continually checked with Tefo to see if his mom was able to secure a visa to attend Saturday's commencement ceremony.

When he learned his mother was unable to get a visa, Puthoff reached out to Tefo to make sure he was OK. Tefo said the sincere gesture meant a lot.

While his mom won't be able to attend, Tefo will be applauded for his achievement by the faculty, his cohort peers, wife and daughter, and his second, ‘chosen family' in the U.S. who've supported him every step of the way.

When he's handed his doctorate, Tefo will know he worked hard for his achievement and that it was sparked by the wisdom of his mother, who encouraged him to pursue an education outside of professional sports.

"I was lucky enough to have a strong mom. She always whispered some sense into my head," Tefo said. "I hope what I have done will make her proud, even if she is not here."

"I don't think I would have made it if I went somewhere else. We had a small cohort and the faculty always keep their doors open. It is insane. You can actually walk in, ask if they have a minute, and talk to a professor."

Max Tefo '18 DPT

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