PA Students Prioritize Cultural Training and Inclusive Spaces in PA Education at Town Hall

On July 12, 2021, PAEA held a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Student Town Hall to provide a safe, brave, and inclusive space for PA students to address the racial injustices that plague the nation and how they affect their experiences in health care education. In the past year, PAEA has taken steps toward providing a safe space for students to share their stories, experiences, and feelings on the racism that continues to pervade the fabric of the country. Students offered important solutions for creating a more inclusive culture and safer learning environments. Students also expressed a deep desire to continue conversations and create dialogue with their peers and program officials.  

The session was opened by Monica Miles, PhD, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at PAEA, who welcomed the attendees. Shortly after, immediate past PAEA president Howard Straker, EdD, MPH, PA-C, and PAEA DIMAC chair, Daytheon Sturges, PhD, MPAS, PA-C, reiterated the intended safety of the session’s atmosphere. Students were encouraged to bravely share their lived experiences while being respectful of others. Live questions were asked through the Zoom polling feature and interwoven into the discussion, which provided initial insight and helped to inform the later conversation.  

The discussion portion was led by four PA student panelists, who were identified by faculty for their leading efforts in advancing justice, equity, and inclusion at their respective programs. The panelists were posed with a series of questions, after which their attending peers were able to contribute to the discussion. Dr. Sturges helped to facilitate the conversation throughout the session. Part 1 covered student experiences in PA programs and Part 2 discussed visible efforts to eliminate racism and support each other, our patients, and our communities.  

Polls conducted during the town hall indicate that many students feel that PA programs are making incremental progress toward an inclusive climate. More than 80% of all responding students felt as if their program presently has a welcoming and inclusive environment. Moreover, 53.5% of all responding students felt a positive change in their program’s environment as it relates to inclusivity in the past year.  

In the third question, nearly 13% of all responding students indicated that their program conducted a climate survey in the past year. This number, juxtaposed against the percentage of students who felt as if their program did not change in terms of inclusiveness in the past year, highlights the need for programs to intentionally assess and respond to DEI issues. 

In terms of issues, students reported instances of microaggressions from individual faculty and preceptors. Accordingly, some students felt uncomfortable addressing their DEI concerns at their programs due to the climate and the power differential. Many students remain concerned about the pervasive culture and feeling isolated and vulnerable when they are the only one in the room from a diverse background or face daunting power dynamics. Issues around the admissions processes in PA programs were discussed as being inequitable and revealing racist practices, which were perceived to be contributing to the low representation of URM PAs.   

Students felt that it is important that programs provide intentional cultural training, work to hire and promote faculty and leaders from diverse backgrounds, and set up systems that facilitate incident reporting, transparency, and accountability. They highlighted the importance of diversifying the pipeline to increase diversity in PA education and in the workforce. In addition, there is a need for more than just focusing on recruitment but really understanding if people were having inclusive experiences. It was also stated that educating minoritized communities about the profession may aid in increasing the number of underrepresented PA applicants. Still, students need to feel comfortable speaking their minds, airing grievances, and knowing that they will be addressed. Intentional diversity training would help address the gaps in knowledge that some students and faculty have when it comes to racism and discrimination.  

In addition to training, students need to have the tools and the space to give them the confidence to report these incidents and represent themselves. While the burden of combatting racism should not be placed on students of color, it was inspiring to see them taking on leadership roles in national organizations, founding their own organizations, and advocating for themselves.  

Even though it was difficult at times to listen to the students’ experiences, their goals for PA education and the profession line up with PAEA’s evolving strategic plan. They value recruiting and retaining students and faculty from diverse backgrounds and providing the tools and inclusive environment to be successful. Their vision is to eliminate discrimination and stigmas to create an inclusive student body and environment that is representative of the communities that they serve and truly provides health for all.  

Dr. Sturges reflected on the town hall sharing, “It is always an honor and an empowering experience to learn from our dynamic PA students. The DEI Student Townhall is always a ‘teach the teacher’ moment. Though not their burden to bear, I thank our students for offering their lived experiences and possible solutions in this brave space for the advancement of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). I hope that PA education continues to promote and demonstrate inclusive excellence. Go forth, JEDI warriors!” 

President Michel Statler added,  “Hearing the candor and emotion from our students is not only humbling, but it also serves as a call to action.  Diversity is not just a buzzword.  If we want meaningful and sustainable change, we need to listen to our students and be open to their suggestions on how we can create more inclusive learning environments.” 

Join us in solidarity! If you are looking for ways to address structural racism in PA education, learn about tools and best practices in PAEA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit