Diana Ruiz on Hispanic Heritage Month & Equity for All

Diana Ruiz, PA-S

Diana Ruiz, a PA student, Latina woman, mom, and biology and public health graduate, grew up wanting to go into medicine. She found the PA profession shortly after becoming a student at Shenandoah University in Virginia but didn’t decide to become a PA until a traumatic event rocked her family and impressed upon her the value of PAs.

We recently spoke with Diana about her journey to PA school, her experiences as a Latinx PA student, and what she believes programs can do to transform their environments into equitable spaces for all.

Tell us about your journey to PA school

I always wanted to be a pre-med student. I eventually became a member of the Health and Life Sciences Club, and they arranged for a group of PA students come and talk to our group. That initial encounter planted the seed of becoming a PA in my mind.

After I graduated, my dad was in a terrible car accident. He had a couple of fractures; he was in pretty bad shape and was in the hospital and rehab for about two months. I was surprised that his primary providers were PAs. I was so amazed and just so excited because I had no idea the degree to which PAs are involved with direct patient care. That was what solidified my decision to become a PA. 

What have you enjoyed most about your PA school experience?

Shenandoah makes it a huge focus not to create a competitive environment. The goal is for all of us to graduate and be the best PAs we can be. I think it creates an amazing dynamic for our group. I’ve loved making these friendships, forming new relationships, and just learning how to work with each other. That’s such a huge part of giving health care in the future as well.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?

When I was an undergrad, Shenandoah lined up all the flags of Hispanic countries in one of our main buildings. I’m from El Salvador, which is a teeny, tiny country in Central America. I found myself staring at my flag at this huge university. It made me feel proud more than anything; it made me remember that I’m not alone, and it put things into perspective – we represent a huge community.

What has your experience been like as a Latinx PA student?

Being a PA student in the Latinx community has been a little lonely. I read a statistic that said Latinx people only make up 7% of PAs across the United States, and PA school has reflected that. I’m incredibly proud that I’m here and that I get to represent my community and be that kind of comfort for my patients in the future. I know the Latinx community makes up a huge patient base. We say we know our people. We interact in a way that’s just so unique, in a way that you can’t with other people – it’s just like we know each other.

Shenandoah has a program where they pair you with an upper-level student of the PA class. I was lucky enough to be paired with the only Latina student in the cohort above me. When I met her, we clicked immediately. It’s been great. I feel like I have some kind of family with me.

It just makes me a little sad knowing that we don’t make up a more significant percentage of the PA profession, and the African American community is even smaller. I constantly think, “What can I do to make this better?” Because we need to be there for our patients.

What does an equitable space look or feel like to you?

I have this dream where in any scenario, you don’t see color. By that, I mean that no one has to be the student of color standing in the middle of the feeling like the odd one out. There should be a mix of diversity in every classroom, so no one feels alone. That’s the way that I would approach equity. We’re all there for the same reason and the same purpose. We all want to get to the same place. I don’t want people to believe I made it because I’m Hispanic. I work just as hard as everybody else.

What would you say to other Latinx Community members pursuing the PA profession?

I would say do it. We need you. Think about your patient population and how you can represent your community in the profession. The Latinx community is huge. You’ll see the patients from your communities all over the world, no matter where you go. 

What is your vision for the future of the PA profession?

During our first semester, I worked on a group project examining many issues that exist in our profession right now, including diversity. One of the interesting things that the group found was that minorities are applying to PA school; we’re putting the work in, we’re just not getting in. We should invest in research and find out why that’s happening and why we aren’t getting admitted.

On that note, I think it’s important to mention how important advocacy is for the PA profession. When you ask anybody the first two healthcare providers that come to their mind, most people say nurses and doctors. A lot of people have no idea what a PA is. I think improving advocacy, in general, would improve diversity. Also, we should give a call to action to people in minority communities, go to high schools and colleges, and tell them that they can do this. Life is hard, but I did it, and I had a baby. They can, too. The 7% of Latinx PAs in the profession could get so much bigger if we all did our part advocating for the PA profession and about how much diversity is needed. It could change everything.

How can PA educators and programs work to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession?

I would invite everyone to look at their own biases and see how they can improve them, not only toward the Latinx community but all people of color. A lot of the time, people either ignore or don’t recognize the fact that whether it be your upbringing, where you live, or the people surrounding you, you do have bias. Minority individuals make up a massive part of the United States – we are everywhere. Looking at your implicit bias will not only make you a better person, but it will make you a better healthcare provider. The most important thing has to be your patient’s health, and it’s a huge problem if the color of their skin impacts your perception of them. It’s also a problem if that affects whether you admit a student into a college. We all need to put the work in.

It’s important to give students opportunities to show their culture to their classmates and professors. For example, my dad lives by oregano – he says oregano heals everything. It’s not uncommon in other cultures to have home remedies to solve things. As a provider, you can’t go in with the attitude of, “What in the world are you thinking?” Because that makes the patient feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that every culture is different when you’re seeing patients and giving care.

So, I think admitting more students of color, doing work to address your own implicit biases, and allowing students to share their unique cultures would be the biggest components of improving diversity and representation.

What is it like to be a mom and a PA student?

Diana’s, with her daughter and PA school colleagues

Going into PA school as a mom was one of my biggest worries, not because I didn’t feel like I could do it, but because I’m so attached to my daughter. She is my life, and the idea of having to sacrifice time away from her to get this degree felt selfish in a way. But then I thought about it in the long term, and I know this will be so much better for both of us. Shenandoah always says, “Remember your why.” It’s been really hard, but she is definitely my number one why, my main driver for all of this.

I recently took her to daycare for the first time, and I literally showed up to school crying. If I could say anything to the PA-student moms out there, it’s just to remember your why. You’re doing it to not only give yourself a better future but to give your kids a better future, too. Coming from a family that wasn’t always financially stable, financial stability is so important to me. I’ll be able to provide for her. It requires a lot of support, and it takes up a lot of time, but we get our cuddles every night, and I know I’m doing it for her at the end of the day.