Radiation Therapy Students Learn the Trade Hands-on

Manhattan College’s program requires six internship rotations at three hospitals or facilities.

Living on the cusp of the world’s greatest classroom, students at Manhattan College have access to real-world job training in New York City even before they graduate.

And for students in the School of Education and Health’s Radiation Therapy Technology program, this access is essential.

Due to the hazardous nature of their field, radiation therapists (RTs) need to be properly trained on machines such as linear accelerators that use high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells in patients.  

Starting the summer after sophomore year, these students dive into their first of six internship rotations at one of 14 affiliated hospitals or private treatment facilities in the greater metropolitan area and begin working their way toward a 276-day requirement.

“It’s not school anymore,” says JoAnne Habenicht, program coordinator for Radiation Therapy Technology at Manhattan College. “When they start their internship, they’re going in as an integral member of the department and working alongside the doctors, physicists, therapists and nurses. Internship is where they learn as much knowledge and compassion as they possibly can.”

On-Site Insight

For junior Pani Sea, who interned at Mount Sinai Medical Center this summer, the learning process started right away. Her eight-hour days sometimes included interaction with 50 patients on three different treatment machines.

Chelsea Schwerzler, also a junior, spent her first summer at Good Samaritan Hospital, bonding with a smaller group of 15-20 patients per day on one machine. The experience of working hands-on in the field five days a week has translated well into the classroom.

“I’ll read and study and think of a certain patient who had that specific problem,” Schwerzler says.

When they start their internship, they’re going in as an integral member of the department and working alongside the doctors, physicists, therapists and nurses.

For many, the internship experience goes beyond just the logistics of learning about machines and treatment, and teaches them how to work with seriously ill patients.

“I’ve given a lot of hugs,” says junior Andrew Hanifin, who interned at East Side Radiation Oncology this summer.

“It’s a really big eye-opener,” Sea adds. “Treating a two-year-old makes you appreciate life.”

After their first summer rotation, which includes five graded competency exercises, the students head back to classes in the fall and continue to intern two days a week, preparing for their next round of competencies. In the spring, they’ll begin their simulation rotation, which involves taking X-rays and starting treatment planning, the process of tailoring treatment for each patient to prepare them for subsequent action.

Designed to supplement on-campus learning, each internship rotation coincides with a semester of focused learning on a certain topic, from treatment planning to site-specific cancers and instrumentation to physics.

And because each facility offers a unique experience, the students spend every two rotations at a different location.

“They’re getting a variety of treatment machines. All the doctors are trained differently,” Habenicht says. “This allows the student to get a well-rounded education.”

Staying Connected

A 40-year veteran of the radiation therapy field, Habenicht uses her own connections to place students where she believes they will flourish. Many of the clinical supervisors they shadow are her former students.

In fact, since Habenicht came on board at Manhattan College in 1997 (two years after the program’s inception), 94 students have graduated with radiation therapy degrees. Of the 94, nine have since become chief therapists at their hospitals or facilities, 11 have or are getting their master’s degrees, and one is an educator.

“It’s a pretty small community of people,” says Schwerzler, one of 10 juniors in the current program. “It’s a great networking tool.”

Within three years of graduation, students must pass their board exams to become certified in radiation therapy. Many Manhattan graduates have opted to stay in the city and are now training the next generation of RTs.

“When I was practicing, my greatest joy was seeing the patients do well,” Habenicht says. “But now my greatest joy here is seeing [the students] do well.”

For a full list of B.S. degree requirements in radiation therapy, visit the course catalog.