Hispanic Heritage Month: “Showing up as your full authentic self creates space for others”

Elías Villarreal, Jr., MPAS, DMSc, PA-C

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, PAEA is recognizing the contributions of Latinx members in our PA education community. I had the pleasure of interviewing Elías Villarreal, Jr., MPAS, DMSc, PA-C, the department chair and program director at Northern Arizona University’s Physician Assistant Studies program.

Elías detailed his prolific career within PA education, where he has dedicated over 20 years to the profession, during most of which he maintained a clinical position and an academic appointment. He described that maintaining both appointments was helpful to him as a faculty member to ensure he had the knowledge of providing students real-life experiences of what to expect in clinical practice. He also described how his patients provided the importance around why PA students must have in-depth knowledge of being a PA.

Elías shared, “While it wasn’t always easy to nurture two careers, and the 20-hour days were difficult, it gave me the ‘street cred’ needed with my students that I wasn’t providing them with just academic, theoretical examples but actual events I encountered. Practicing while teaching helped me be a better educator.”

Elias said he mastered the art of cross-training himself by assuming different positions within the programs, so he understood how different aspects operated. “Instead of complaining about why different teams did the things they did, I joined them to better understand. This approach has enlightened me as a program director where I have worked every position within a program. I didn’t want anyone to put me in just one box, instead, I opened all of the boxes so I could choose for myself.” 

As a native Texan, Elias provides insight into the complex situations Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students experienced crossing the border to complete their education. Elias shared, “I take my role of educating DACA students with care and commitment. They deserve my best. To learn about the experiences of living in poverty and their dedication to becoming a PA was so powerful. I had to honor that. They are amazing students, and I knew becoming a PA would change their lives and provide them with the economic means to take care of themselves and their families. Building this relationship with my students meant I had to show up as my authentic self, like I pronounce and ask others to pronounce my name, Elías, with the Spanish dialectic. I intentionally speak in Spanish within greetings and conversations so that we are encouraging the inclusion of Spanish-speaking patients and students. I don’t know if anyone realizes the powerful impact these acts have on our programs.” Elías’s approach to encouraging speaking Spanish has led to an increase of Latinx students by 40% and over 60% of people that speak Spanish across all races within his program at Northern Arizona University.

When asked about what he would like his PA education peers to know about the inclusion of Latinx students and faculty, he said:

  1. You need a face. Recruit from beyond and from within. Find a face that Latinx people identify with and can model.
  2. Beyond having holistic admissions, think about the entire experience students from Latinx backgrounds are having. How well do you know them and their cultures? As a program, what are you doing once they are enrolled? You accepted them … now what?
  3. Students need mentors that look like them and understand their culture, background, and norms. So often, faculty worry more about the rules of the PA school game than they do about those who are playing the game without instructions. Our Latinx students don’t often have the privilege of holding an ace card.

I have learned who I am, worked hard to be who I am, and, with all of my identities, have empowered myself to do great things as a Latino. I show up and use my voice. And my face is a visible reminder to Latinx students that they have a place in PA education, the profession, and as future leaders.”

Elias wants others to consider going deeper into understanding Hispanic Heritage Month by moving beyond bright-colored posters and generic social media marketing and find ways to more authentically understand the cultures and experiences of Latinx people. He encourages PAEA to continue to build on these profiles and have them develop into increased resources for faculty to better understand Latinx students.