Founder of a New Orleans PA Program Excited About Forum

PAEA’s Education Forum will be in the historic and legendary city of New Orleans this year and a local program director is eager for you to see the city.

Varsha Castro Gusman, PA-C, is founding program director of the Physician Assistant (PA) program at Xavier University of Louisiana in partnership with Ochsner Health. She’s also on the Advanced Practice Provider (APP) Diversity and Inclusion Council and a PA Advisory Committee member for the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners.

In a few weeks, the 2023 PAEA Education Forum will be in New Orleans and Gusman said everyone at the Xavier program is excited to welcome PAEA members to their city.

“We are most excited to be able to share with those in the PA profession about what makes New Orleans unique and culturally diverse,” she said. “New Orleans is multicultural melting pot that is interwoven with African, French, and Spanish influences. We are best known for our world-renowned celebration of Mardi Gras, in addition to our Creole and Cajun cuisine, distinctive jazz music, and festivals. 

Gusman pointed out the New Orleans area is known as a place to get excellent Creole cuisine. She recommends trying her favorite restaurant in New Orleans, Dooky Chase, for some traditional New Orleans cuisine such as gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, and red beans and rice. For seven decades, Dooky Chase was led by the world-famous chef, Leah Chase. Her award-winning Creole cuisine, love for community, fight for equality, and unmatched sense of hospitality and love can still be felt around each table and with each meal shared at Dooky Chase. Chase received the James Beard Award Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

The PD also suggested visitors to the Education Forum might want to just take time to see what they can of the Big Easy.

“Everyone must visit the world-famous Café Du Monde for some beignets. Beignets are square shaped pieces of dough that are deep fried and generously sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. They’re best served hot and are best paired with a cup of coffee, or café au lait,” she said.

Gusman added, “It’s really nice to take a stroll on the cobblestoned streets along the Mississippi River. The French Quarter buildings and architecture provide a window into our history as most have been preserved in their original state. Visit Jackson Square to see the open-air artist gathering of painters, caricaturists, portraitists, musicians, magicians, and fortune tellers from all over the world.”

Gusman is happy that so many PA educators will be in the area soon.

“It’s so wonderful to be able to have PAEA visit New Orleans and have so many of our colleagues from the PA profession see what makes our beloved city so unique. I’m just looking forward to meeting PA colleagues from across the nation and listening to so many wonderful speakers and everything that PAEA has in store for us,” she said.

Xavier University of Louisiana is about 10 minutes from the location of the Education Forum.

Xavier: Its Mission and History

In a recent interview Gusman spoke with pride about Xavier and the PA program.

Xavier University of Louisiana was founded almost a century ago, in 1925 by Saint Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. It is one of about 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States and one of about 250 Catholic universities. Xavier is the only Catholic university that is also a HBCU.

“The distinction of being the only University that is both Black and Catholic belongs to Xavier. This university strives to combine the best of its attributes in both its faith and culture,” Gusman said.

Gusman said Xavier is known as being one of the top two Universities that places the highest number of Black students into medical school. The university is also known for its well-respected Pharmacy Program.

Gusman herself is a graduate of Xavier and went to PA school in Louisiana at Our Lady of the Lake, which is now Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Baton Rouge.

Besides spending 10 years as a practicing PA in neuro critical care at Ochsner Health, Gusman became the founding program director for Xavier University of Louisiana’s PA program in 2018. It is her first job in PA education.

Xavier’s PA Program currently has seven faculty members. The program admitted its first cohort in 2020 and graduated its inaugural class of 37 new PAs in 2022.

“Xavier’s PA Program represents excellence in teaching the art of medicine. We want to be a leader in PA education, and we want to provide our students with an environment that fosters quality academic and clinical education. We have partnered with Ochsner Health as our exclusive clinical partners, one of the leading health systems in the Gulf South,” she said.

The mission of Xavier is to educate and establish graduates who create a more just and humane society. Xavier educates PAs to be well-versed in serving the diverse communities of the New Orleans area.

“We have a mission and a focus to create more diversity within the PA profession. We have one of the most diverse PA programs in terms of our make-up and we make sure that we focus on minority groups that are underrepresented in the PA profession,” she said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.6 percent of the American population identifies as Black or African-American but a PAEA poll of students in 2021, listed in Student Report 5, found that less than 5 percent of matriculating students identified as Black or African-American. Gusman said it’s part of Xavier’s mission to be a “vehicle of change for that.”

“We want to be able to move that needle and diversify the PA profession by educating a diverse group of PAs that are underrepresented in the PA profession and in medicine,” she said.

Universities like Xavier put a lot of planning and work into being part of the solution.

“It’s a part of being an HBCU as well as being very intentional about who we are recruiting. During the recruitment process, we try to make sure that our approach is a holistic approach so we’re not just looking at GPA or GRE but we’re taking other factors into consideration such as first generation going to college and graduating from university, first generation into the medical profession, or socio-economic background,” she said.

Xavier University was also in the PAEA spotlight recently for a story on “EDI in Action.” Read more here.