Virtual Camp Helps Students Serve During Pandemic

Students at the Saint Elizabeth University (SEU) PA Program recently achieved two valuable goals in their work for a series of virtual camps entitled, “My Body and Me. Taught by Future PA-Cs” and a virtual health career fair, “Explore! Health Careers!” SEU PA students taught participants — in kindergarten through high school — important lessons about how their bodies work and how to keep them healthy and, hopefully, also planted some seeds of interest in the PA profession as a possible future career. Twenty students took part in the camp with their sessions reaching approximately 50 students per session synchronously or asynchronously, a number they expect to increase as many of their sessions were recorded for future use by local school districts. The students even reached learners in Canada, England, and Spain — connected to others interested in health by social media.

Saint Elizabeth University has a deep commitment to service, social justice, and leadership, and all students are required to do service hours as part of their program. COVID restrictions had made this more difficult to do, so the virtual fair helped PA students meet their requirements. The PA students typically focus much of their service work on encouraging others to consider the PA profession. “We are very big on pre-PA engagement,” said Lori Tarke, Med, DHSc, director of clinical sites for the PA program, who worked with the program’s student society on developing the virtual camp materials. “We do it for the mission of the college. Everybody who works here does it for all the right reasons.”

This student outreach work often focuses on increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the PA profession, which has been disproportionately white for many years. “We hear of guidance counselors telling some of these kids not to apply for health careers because it’s just not in their cards,” said Tarke. “Through these health events, these students can hear someone telling them that [being a PA] is achievable and attainable.”

And it is important to start when students are in middle school or even younger, said Program Director Medea Valdez, PA-C. “We never heard about the PA profession in the old days when I was in high school,” she said. “Reaching out to younger kids is very helpful. It’s important to think about how you approach your college career — to get the right guidance and support and help.”

Student Teachers

The students who taught the virtual camp classes all said that they enjoyed the experience. “It fills my heart to work with these kids,” said Marcela Hurtado, who was a physician in her native Colombia for eight years before moving to the U.S. with her husband and eventually going to PA school. She had some prior experience teaching preschool kids at her church and also had the advantage of having her own son available to help; they presented together on an “All About My Senses” session for five- to eight-year-olds. Her Spanish fluency also came in handy in a presentation on what it means to be a PA for high school students, delivered in Spanish. “I was in my comfort zone with the language,” she said. “I like to share what I know.”

Another student, Beenish Ashfaq, was also trained as a physician in her native Pakistan before going to PA school when she moved with her husband to the U.S. She was attracted to the flexibility of the profession: “The most interesting thing for me is the lateral mobility; not like being a doctor where you have to stick with one specialty.” She tried to convey this message to the students she spoke to. “PAs are as competent as MDs,” she said.

All the students said that the most common comment they heard from high school students was along the lines of “PAs can do that?” They also tried to impart the corollary message: that in order for PAs to do what they do, applying to and being accepted to PA school requires a lot of hard work and preparation. Student Heenal Gandhi recalls students being “shocked to find out that PAs can be in any specialty. And they didn’t realize how much preparation was needed to apply to PA school.”

Ashfaq, also a mother, made use of her seven-year-old son’s toys in her presentation on the “five special senses.” Mr. Potato Head was a big hit with the K-second grade kids she taught, and her experience as a mother helped too. “When talking to the kids, I asked myself ‘What if my son was here; how would I teach him?’”

While all three students said they enjoyed their teaching experience, Gandhi was the only one of the three students interviewed who admitted to a desire to join the ranks of PA educators one day. “I first want to become a PA, then consider education,” she said. 

“They did not realize how much they liked teaching kids,” noted Valdez. “They got a taste of instructional design, audience engagement. The experience boosted their communications and presentation skills — and gave them a renewed appreciation for their faculty!”