Virtual Matriculation: Welcoming New Students to “Campus”

The pandemic has created numerous opportunities for innovation — not all of them by choice. To explore some of them, PAEA has written a series of three articles about admissions in the time of COVID-19. In part one, we discussed virtual shadowing as a way for pre-PA students to gain experience during the pandemic. In part two of our virtual admissions series, we covered virtual interviewing. In this final article, we’ll look at the final stage of admissions: matriculation and onboarding.

Typically, right about now, students would be preparing to head to campus to get settled into their new home for the next year or two. Apartment searching, campus tours, meeting their professors. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, many universities are starting their next semesters fully online. If students aren’t busy learning their way around campus and shaking their professors’ hands for the first time, what should they be prepared for instead?

PAEA spoke to Jamie McQueen, MS, PA-C, director of academics and assessment at the Wayne State University PA program; Paul Koltnow, MS, MSPAS, PA-C, assistant professor and director of admissions at the University of Tennesse Health Science Center (UTHSC) PA program; Katie Spolidoro, BS, admissions counselor at the Johnson & Wales University PA program; and Elias Villarreal, Jr., DMSc, MPAS, PA-C, program director, department chair, and clinical professor at the Northern Arizona University PA program. Each of them gave us a glimpse into the new normal for matriculation into their program.

Getting Students “in the Door”

Johnson & Wales’s latest class of 36 soon-to-be PAs matriculated in June. “In a normal year, we would have had a reception for new students and their families to come in, explore the building, and get to know one another. Then, we would have three days of in-person orientation before classes began,” said Spolidoro. This year, new students participated in a virtual orientation in late May, then began classes fully virtually via Zoom until they resumed in-person in early July.

At Wayne State, students are typically welcomed to campus for orientation about two months before their classes start to learn their way around campus, visit their classrooms, meet their new professors and fellow students, and get a crash-course on all of the resources the university and program have to offer. Due to the timing of the program’s matriculation, their new students were able to attend an initial onboarding on campus earlier this year — just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit causing the program to go completely virtual.

The UTHSC PA program’s normal onboarding process, including orientation, policy review, and an overview of student support services, happens the first week of class. Incoming students are also assigned a “buddy” from the current class who can help them answer questions about housing and provide other information about Memphis that faculty may not be as familiar with. The UTHSC PA program won’t onboard their next cohort until January, though planning is well under way in the event that the pandemic is still affecting in-person instruction at that time. Their process will likely stay the same; however, the university has also provided professional quality video tours of the campus grounds, their new state-of-the-art simulation center, classrooms, and student support services — including the registrar and financial aid offices answering frequently asked questions — in lieu of in-person tours.

Introducing Virtual or Hybrid Learning

For new cohorts, an introduction to virtual learning is their introduction to PA school. As McQueen noted, “New cohorts don’t know what non-virtual PA school is.”

At PA programs across the country, faculty have been doing outstanding work transitioning historically in-person classes to a virtual or hybrid format and making use of technology like Zoom’s breakout rooms to encourage group work and discussion. The Northern Arizona University PA program has opted for a half-and-half approach, where half of the students study at home and half on campus, alternating weeks, with everyone coming to campus on Friday for labs.

PAEA has heard from multiple programs that one of the hardest parts of transitioning to virtual instruction is teaching clinical skills such as suturing or placing an IV. Wayne State has integrated several new case-based simulation programs, which they had previously not used, and have also made use of several faculty-approved videos that teach these skills.

They have been having students submit recorded videos to evaluate some skills. While this has been helpful, “It’s hard to tell sometimes if they have mastered the skills from their videos, so when we go back on campus, we will meet in small groups to do a recap to make sure they fully understand and can demonstrate the skills,” said McQueen.

Programs are also finding new ways to include group work in their curriculum and report that the increase in group work is being well-received by students. In order to maintain physical distancing at Johnson & Wales, the program has broken the students up into smaller groups and are educating them with in-person lectures and hands-on dissection in anatomy lab.

Creating and Fostering Connections

Like many programs, Wayne State has an open-door policy when it comes to communication between students and faculty. “How do you have virtual open-door roles? And how do you translate how available you are through a computer screen,” wondered McQueen. “It’s harder to show new students how we interact.”

Typically, new students at Wayne State are linked with a faculty advisor right away, and before COVID-19, students were required to meet with them once a semester, but this new cohort of students was already actively working with their advisor before they officially started. The program’s professionalism course usually takes place over the first two months of the program. For this year, the program is using the course as a way to help students connect with each other and their advisor. Students were given questions to answer and submit to their advisor before the first day of class, at which point their advisor met with them in groups to have deeper conversations.

“We came up with this idea so students can see that we are one big PA family and we’re all in this together, and that their struggles are probably the struggles of others,” said McQueen. “It’s students’ first opportunity for learning and growth while connecting with each other.”

Figuring Out What Works, What Doesn’t, and What Will Stick Post-Pandemic

The senior portion of Wayne State students’ didactic year spans from March to May, so students in that cohort were able to experience both in-person and virtually adjusted classes. Three weeks into fully virtual learning, the program released a survey to their current cohorts to check in on what was working and what wasn’t. These students were able to give the program an interesting perspective during the transition about what was working — or not — based on their prior experience of the program, and all of their students offered advice for easing the onboarding process for the newest class.

Though McQueen said the Wayne State program for the most part will resume in-person business as usual post-pandemic, they have also found times where the lessons learned and technology adopted during this time will be beneficial. For example, having a virtual way for a guest speaker who moved out of state to continue to speak to students is helpful. Additionally, the changes to the professionalism course and the inclusion of more group learning will likely continue due to positive student feedback — which is one way the program is making these decisions.

Koltnow summed up UTHSC’s virtual transition: “Our program works with a core belief that the program exists to serve the students to become the best PAs possible. This philosophy drives our decision-making” — a sentiment that is echoed across PA education as a whole.