Tonia Hess-Kling Brings Enthusiasm, Clinical Skills and Commitment to Classroom
By Laura B. Hans ‘13
When Tonia Hess-Kling was younger, a chiropractor helped her mother overcome difficulties with vision and balance. That experience piqued her interest in the field and led her to become a board-certified chiropractor.
Now in her position as an assistant professor of exercise science at Wilson, Hess-Kling brings a strong clinical background and real-world experience to her classrooms. Through such courses as human anatomy, physiology and kinesiology, she is helping train future physical therapists, occupational therapists, athletic trainers—or even chiropractors, like herself.
Hess-Kling’s clinical work “really resonates with students. When they can hear that real-world experience, rather than just learning about something theoretically, they’re learning how it really exists (in the workplace) and that makes a huge difference,” said Carolyn Hart, associate professor and chair of the Division of Nursing and Health Sciences.
Hess-Kling earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Hood College and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from New York Chiropractic College. After graduation, she and her husband, physical therapist Derek Kling, worked in Australia—a country known for manual medicine—before returning to Pennsylvania to practice.
Her passion for volunteer work landed her at Wilson. She began as a volunteer assisting the college athletics department with pre-season sports physical exams. In 2013, Director of Athletics Lori Frey, who at that time was directing Wilson’s exercise science program, asked Hess-Kling to consider teaching part time. She accepted the position, slowed down her clinical work and now, four years later, teaches full time and oversees the exercise science department.
In her classroom, Hess-Kling’s students are never just sitting there. “They’re up and doing something, and they all have huge smiles on their faces,” Hart said. “I think it’s because of the enthusiasm that Tonia generates. She sees her role as bringing what’s in the textbook to life in a very personal manner. That’s difficult to do and she makes it look easy.”
“In exercise physiology class, we’re using the bikes and treadmills and we’re taking blood pressure every week,” Hess-Kling said. “We’re doing the application and then tying it back to the theory.” She also uses case studies to help students bridge the gap between theoretical concepts and practical applications. “A major focus for me is practical application and experiential learning opportunities for students, so I use a lot of case studies in the classroom. I use ‘hypothetical’ situations in the classroom that are actually situations I had been exposed to, and that students will be encountering as well.”
Hess-Kling also engages students with community resource and service learning opportunities by bringing clinicians into the classroom and taking students off campus to observe at personal training, therapy and chiropractic offices.
Each spring, Hess-Kling’s students complete senior fitness assessments for residents at Menno Haven, a Chambersburg retirement community. The students first practice the protocol and procedures on campus and then perform strength, muscular and balance assessments with the Menno Haven residents. “We try to make sure that whenever students are leaving here, they are coming from a very well-rounded curriculum, strong in the sciences,” Hess-Kling said. “Yet from a professional development standpoint, they are starting to gain a lot of the core competencies they’re going to need out in their professions.”
Hess-Kling has helped revitalize and create a robust exercise science program at Wilson, according to Hart. Currently, Hess-Kling and her colleagues are working to establish an accelerated, direct pathway into graduate degrees—something increasingly necessary in the exercise science field.
A new articulation agreement signed in 2017 with Thomas Jefferson University (which recently merged with Philadelphia University) will provide Wilson health science and exercise science students with a fast track to a Master of Science in Athletic Training degree. In this accelerated 3+2 program, students will complete their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years, one year less than is normally required.
Hess-Kling and Hart are also working on an articulation agreement with New York Chiropractic College, which would set up a 4+3 agreement (four years at Wilson, three years at NYCC) and culminate in a Doctor of Chiropractic degree. These agreements will benefit students by gaining them acceptance into graduate level programs while reducing the time spent earning a graduate degree and saving students in tuition costs. Providing students with a path to a doctor of physical therapy degree is also a program goal.
Wilson’s campus initiative of “One Team, One Goal” embodies her work philosophy, Hess-Kling said. “I really love that idea. My working in clinical practice, you have to rely on others. You are the team and you work as a cohesive unit and I value that, so being part of a tightknit team has been a really great experience,” she said. “I’m vested in Wilson, not just my job, but (also) in my students, their futures; and the program overall … I want to see Wilson succeed and continue to grow.”