PAEA Vignette Project: Racism in Student Evaluations  

This Black History Month, we are sharing stories from the PAEA Vignette Project. These short, descriptive stories aim to increase understanding of the experiences of members in the PA education community who are underrepresented in medicine. The vignettes will cover a multitude of topics related to racism, discrimination, hostility in the workplace, and more. We look forward to the critical conversations these stories will spur with the goal of transforming higher graduate medical education environments. If you are interested in contributing to this project, please share your story here.  Or, you are welcome to participate in an anonymous 15–30-minute interview with Dr. Monica Miles, who you can contact at She can listen to your story and capture the vignette. The Vignette Project would like to thank the brave people that have shared their stories to teachable moments for PA educators.  

Racism in Student Evaluations  

After over 10 years as a practicing PA, Dr. Sandra Smith, a Black woman, wanted to give back to the profession and shape PAs to help impact health disparities, so she began teaching. When Dr. Smith was brought on as a professor at a southeastern university, she was disappointed that her institution did not assist her with developing course materials or training on effective teaching methods. Fortunately, a veteran PA educator in her department took Dr. Smith under her wing and provided her with materials and support. After completing her first semester, Dr. Smith reviewed her student evaluations and remarked how “nothing can really prepare you for reading racist comments in student evaluations.” Despite being the only person in her department with a PhD and that she had the most time under her belt as a practicing PA, her students described her as “not having enough qualifications.” Dr. Smith wondered how her students felt that they could dismiss her credentials? She realized that despite her experience, the only other difference between her and her colleagues was that she was the sole Black person in her department, as her students and her department were comprised of all white women. Dr. Smith’s colleagues insisted that she must have done something in class to cause the students to view her in that way. She realized that they had never experienced something like this and did not understand the struggles she faced at the university as a Black Woman. With no support from the university, Dr. Smith was forced to find her own ways to validate herself.  

Discussion Q’s  

  • How could the university, both administration and faculty, have better aided Dr. Smith in her first semester?   
  • What are the potential ramifications of not challenging student’s racial biases during their education?  
  • Retaining faculty of color is an issue persistent across academia. How does Dr. Smith’s story help explain this problem?   

Creating Space for Safe and Critical Discussions:

As you work through these questions with your colleagues, here are some tips to keep in mind for creating space for safe and critical discussions:

  • Avoid “whataboutisms”
  • Remain compassionate and empathetic
  • Ask questions and listen to others’ opinions
  • Uplift and center underrepresented voices
  • Validate others’ experiences
  • Stay engaged through discomfort
  • Be courageous and welcome missteps and uncomfortable situations
  • Be aware of the “minority tax” and do not expect underrepresented faculty, staff, or students to bear the burden initiating the Vignette discussions