Dawn Morton-Rias, EdD, PA-C, is the president/CEO of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Before stepping into this new role last year, she served as dean of the College of Health Related Professions at SUNY Downstate in New York. A past president of PAEA, she has been an active leader in the Association and PA education for more than 20 years. She shares with us how she got started in leadership and what keeps her going.
PAEA: What first prompted you to get involved in PAEA leadership? Did you have plans to run for the board and ultimately serve as president?
Dawn Morton-Rias: I was introduced to leadership in PAEA, then the Association of Physician Assistant Programs (APAP), by Tony Miller (currently PAEA’s chief policy & research officer). I was a brand new PA educator in what was a wave of new programs in the early 1990s. Tony encouraged me to become involved in the Leadership Training Institute (LTI), and I quickly found a new professional home. I was eager to learn all that I could about PA education. The LTI, APAP leadership, and faculty colleagues embraced me and so many of us who were just starting out at that time. APAP was — and PAEA still is — a very welcoming organization.
“It is great to see that so many of our profession’s leaders, like Dawn, got their start with the Leadership Training Institute in Loretto, Pennsylvania, back in the 1990s.” — Tony Miller, MEd, PA-C
It was there that I was able to develop, share, and expand my interests and capacity in teaching and learning, curriculum development, academic administration ― and fostering cultural competence. One of my early works involved the development of a Minority Faculty Development Program with Brenda Jasper, Les Howard, and Howard Straker (long before they were called PandoTM workshops). Later, it was Sue Greenberg who “tapped me on the shoulder” ― literally ― and encouraged me to consider a leadership role with APAP. I served as vice president (1995–1996) before serving as president 10 years later.
My road to the presidency followed work on the Transition Task Force (TTF). The TTF was a visionary group of leaders who took the bold step to investigate and then guide APAP to a new level as an independent organization. My presidency (2005–2006) bridged the gap in our move from the AAPA offices, the transition to independence, a new logo, and the birth of PAEA.
PAEA: As a minority woman, what barriers or challenges have you faced on the path to your current position? How did you handle them?
DMR: Race is a touchy subject in America. People don’t like to talk about it. While there have been strides to promote equality and to improve access and outcomes in health and education, there is still so much to be done. Health disparities continue. Profiling is widespread. Economic gaps widen during troubled fiscal times. Enrollment and graduation rates of African American and Latina college students as well as PA students are not where they should be. The data are compelling.
The challenges I face as a minority woman are similar to the challenges faced by other minorities. We are often the only person of color around the table. Professional isolation is familiar. I, like many, can describe in detail countless occasions where preconceived notions and bias interfered with my ability to persevere, achieve, and to do the good work I endeavor to do. I am mindful of the opportunity that I have had to do the best I can to provide a voice and a means for our profession ― for the students I have educated and mentored; for the patients that I have cared for; and now for certified PAs and their patients. I am committed to giving voice.
I pray and remain optimistic, solution-oriented, grateful and grounded. I walk the beach, I read, and I rely on a network of family, friends and colleagues, as I try to do my best every day.
“Working with Dawn is a fun experience, as she is committed to excellence for PA education and the profession through diversity. She is sharp and has the ability to see the big picture as well as the small details. Because of the level of her skills, she brings out your ‘A game’ and, as a result, the team produces a quality product.” — Howard Straker, MPH, PA-C
PAEA: What surprised you most about serving as a leader?
DMR: What has surprised me most is how much I gain and learn with every leadership opportunity. At each level, I have been able to build on prior experience, learn new strategies, stretch and grow, and get to know so many wonderful people.
PAEA: How does it feel to not be at a PA program/university anymore? What do you miss most about it?
DMR: I enjoyed serving as dean. I was able to build infrastructure and shape policy and programming in ways that can best be done at that level. I miss it a little. Many aspects of my position with NCCPA build upon the experiences and skills that I developed as an academic. I am grateful to have retained an academic appointment at SUNY Downstate, allowing me to give lectures there and at a few other PA programs. I love being with students, encouraging them and helping them become their best selves.
PAEA: What are some of your lessons learned about being a leader?
DMR: Not so profound but still useful:
- Each of us has a short time. In the time that I have, I hope to leave things better than I found them.
- Health and a balanced life are very important and valuable.
- Learning is constant.
PAEA: Can you tell us something about you that most people probably don’t know?
DMR: People know that I am a New York City girl, but they may not know that I am also a country mouse. As much as I love the pace, texture and variety of the city, I love walking the beach and mountain trails. When I’m outside, I feel free and unencumbered. Nature is calming and grounding ― it helps me gain perspective. When at the ocean or in the forest, I am more aware of how small we (and our problems) really are.