PA Students Weigh in on PA Education in the Time of Coronavirus

Last week, PAEA had the opportunity to convene our Future Educator Fellows to discuss what they have been experiencing and what they have learned from the pandemic.

After opening remarks from PAEA President Howard Straker, EdD, MPH, PA-C, PAEA CEO Mary Jo Bondy, DHEd, MHS, PA-C, Chair of the Future Educator Development Steering Committee (FEDSC) John Ramos, MMS, PA-C, and other members of the FEDSC, the virtual floor was opened to the fellows. Over the course of the conversation, a few themes became clear.

Innovate, Adapt, Overcome

Overall, the students have been impressed with and appreciate the ability of PA programs to pivot so quickly while maintaining a high-quality education.

Sunayana Pydah, a student at the University of Lynchburg explained that educators “have to be adaptable to change and this has been a true test for that.”

From utilizing a flipped classroom approach to launching virtual office hours, programs represented by the fellows have implemented multiple strategies to keep students engaged and on track for graduation.

“Flexibility is a cardinal virtue of being a PA,” said Dennis Zelenak, a student at the University of Evansville, who credits this key aspect of PA education and practice as a reason that educators have been able to make the transition to virtual education almost seamlessly.

East Carolina University student Caitlin Bradley agreed, saying, “Professors have become flexible and innovative in this time of need.” She also noted that throughout the pandemic her professors have been extremely supportive — a sentiment that was echoed by other participants as well. Jessica Veale credited her program, Duke University, for implementing virtual office hours, noting that this has allowed her to build a relationship with her advisor in a way that wasn’t there before.

Starting with a Virtual Mindset

Because the group of students who participated all intend to enter PA education at some point in their careers, much of the discussion focused on if and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their desire to take this path. The answer came across loud and clear: If anything, this crisis has only strengthened their resolve to become PA educators and has opened the door for more flexibility in PA education than they previously thought possible.

Watching programs transform to largely virtual classes, from a student’s perspective, have made some things clear for the fellows. Two realizations that stood out from the conversation were that virtual curriculum contingencies and telehealth instruction should now both be included from the outset.

In addition to taking their curriculum online, many programs are using virtual technology to help strengthen interpersonal relationships between their cohorts and ensure their students don’t feel disconnected outside of the classroom. For example, students at Mercer University organized mock challenge bowls via Zoom for all three PA classes at once. Student fellow and recent graduate Alicia Duval appreciated the friendly competition between classes and explained that the virtual platform allowed for more people to participate than many physical spaces would. She said it also helped foster “lots of interpersonal relationships with other classes.”

A Whole New World

Meredith Quinene, DHSc, MPAS, PA-C, faculty member at the UT Health San Antonio School of Health Professions and member of the FEDSC, was in PA school on 9/11. “My world and the world changed while I was in PA school,” she said. Ultimately, the events of that day changed the course of her career for the better — and she encouraged the fellows to seek out new opportunities. “I was able to have opportunities I never would have thought I wanted or knew were possible. But because I responded to what was going on in the world, I had really awesome opportunities,” she said.

One of the fellows, Nicolette LaRosa recently graduated from the Drexel University PA program and has just started her first job at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City — one of the hardest-hit areas of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve seen first-hand the adaptability of PAs and how important it is to be able to pick up new skills. It’s a lot different than the world I thought I’d be going into. Most neurology PAs have been redeployed, and we’re all becoming experts in ventilator use,” she said.

Moving Forward — Together

To wrap up the conversation, PAEA’s Bondy offered words of wisdom for the students as they continue to weather the pandemic and focus on their education.

“You have a network of support around you that you can tap into any time you need to. As leaders, that’s our responsibility, and that’s one of the things I love doing the most,” said Bondy. “The fact that you’re learning all the generalist skills in addition to leadership, population health, and advocacy gives you a tremendous skillset upon which you can build and take in any direction. It’s a great time to be a PA.”

Thank you to the FEDSC for leading and participating in this call – and to all of the fellows who took time out of their day to share their experiences and insights with us.