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Physician Associate Class of 2020 Is Recognized for Persistence, Resilience, and Grace

December 21, 2020
by Abigail Roth

“The Class of 2020’s experiences have been like the experiences of no other class, in a year that has been like no other year.”

“I commend you for your persistence and your resilience.”

“You are the most flexible, resilient, and strongest class to have ever graduated from the Yale PA Program in our time.”

“You persevered with grace and fortitude.”

These remarks were shared during the December 7 Commencement Ceremony for the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Physician Associate (PA) Program’s Class of 2020—the 48th class to graduate from this program. The comments were made by PA Program Director and Assistant Professor Alexandria Garino, PhD, PA-C; Nancy J. Brown, MD, Jean and David W. Wallace Dean and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine; Associate Program Director and Assistant Professor David Brissette, MMSc, PA-C; and Assistant Professor and Director of Clinical Education Rita Rienzo, MMSc, PA-C.

The strength, flexibility, and resiliency of the class also were reflected in the structure and spirit of the ceremony itself, which class co-presidents Joseph Miller ’20, MMSc, and Madeline Kratz ’20, MMSc, helped create. While participants joined from their homes through Zoom, rather than the traditional gathering in Yale’s grand Woolsey Hall, the ceremony was filled with a spirit of celebration and comradery, with Pomp and Circumstance setting the mood from the start.

In Garino’s welcoming remarks, she stated, “educators talk about the transformative power of education. That transformation is most obvious in PA education. Students come to us as laypeople and leave as clinicians—all in 28 short months. That’s remarkable.” She discussed the uncertainty the students had experienced since mid-March, when clinical rotations were suspended for 14 weeks because of COVID-19. She continued, “now think of all you’ve accomplished in your time with us. You’ve delivered babies. You’ve assisted in surgery. You’ve sutured and made difficult diagnoses. You’ve comforted and advocated. You’ve worked hard, you’ve studied long, and you’ve succeeded. All in the midst of a global pandemic.”

In introducing Commencement speaker Damien A. Fair ’01, PhD, PA-C, Redleaf Endowed Director, Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, and professor at the Medical School University of Minnesota, Garino noted he has the distinction of being one of the few PAs to be selected as commencement speaker by a graduating class. She added that Fair is a constant champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.

Fair’s message to the graduates reflected his own varied path. He first practiced as a PA in the Neurology Department at Yale New Haven Hospital, before going back to school to get his PhD in Neuroscience. He founded and now co-directs the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain.

Fair reflected nostalgically on his time in New Haven and at Yale. He then compared the world when he graduated with today. “I had it immensely easy. And I had it easy for one and maybe only one reason. It was not 2020.” Pointing to all the challenges today, he said, “the good news is that we have you.” He continued, “the PA degree is ideally suited to help us get through one of the most important journeys of our lifetime in recovering from 2020,” adding “it may be the most flexible upper level degree in medicine. You in all seriousness can do almost anything you want.”

He encouraged the class to take chances in their career. For example, to get involved in policy discussions, improve the practice of telemedicine, and engage with how to reduce health inequities. “We need you to help us create the new normal. Utilize your privileged education and your flexible position to propel us towards a healthier society.”

Brown, in her inaugural Commencement address to a PA Program class, echoed Fair in the important role the graduates will play, stating “we need you today as we have never needed you before.” She pointed to COVID-19 focusing attention on the fact that some populations are disproportionately affected by acute illness and chronic diseases. “We understand that much of the reason for health inequities relates to access, and you are critical to making health care more accessible to patients.”

She also shared advice with the graduates, to maintain their sense of curiosity, pay attention to the outliers, listen to patients, avoid short-cuts, and don’t be afraid to ask for help, adding “all of us do.”

As Director of Didactic Education Elizabeth Roessler, MMSc, PA-C, read the name of each of the 40 graduates, the camera focused on each individual, who had an opportunity to share a few words. Most graduates wore their cap and gown, and balloons and festive signs were visible in several backgrounds. A number of graduates had parents, children, or friends with them to celebrate, occasionally with champagne in hand. Congratulations messages streamed through the chat feature.

In the student address, Zachary Gibson ’20, MMSc, echoed the theme of COVID-19’s impact on the class. “No one could have predicted we would complete this training under the challenges of a global pandemic,” he said. And while celebrating the differences among his classmates, he also emphasized their similarities, including that they all joined the PA Program “to nurture, to care, to heal” patients.

The recitation of the Physician Associate Program Professional Oath occurred through a creative and moving video montage, with individuals and small groups of students each reading a line from the oath. It concluded with all the graduates reciting the final words together, “these duties are pledged with sincerity and upon my honor.”

Brissette closed the ceremony with an image of Woolsey Hall behind him as his Zoom background. Like many speakers before him, he expressed gratitude toward the graduates’ families. And he told the graduates, “you’re ready. You’ve made it through this challenging curriculum and the additional challenge of a pandemic, so you are prepared for whatever lies ahead.” In closing, he said “this journey, which was significantly impacted by COVID, will be part of your history. You handled it with grace and professionalism and for that we commend you. Because of this experience, you will bring something very special to your careers.”

Physician Associate Class of 2020 Commencement Awards

Dr. John P. Hayslett Award for Overall Academic Excellence
Giavanna Chirico ’20

Yale Physician Associate Program Leadership Award
Elena Sullivan ’20 and Sarah Fittro ’20

Outstanding Didactic Course Award
Matthew Grant, MD, assistant professor of medicine (Infectious Diseases); associate program director, Internal Medicine Residency

Outstanding Clinical Site Award
Stony Creek Urgent Care

Outstanding Preceptor Award
Ebony Dix, MD, assistant professor (Psychiatry)

Jack Cole Society Award
Charlene Justin, MMSc, PA-C

Class of 2020 Award
Megan Pendagast

Submitted by Abigail Roth on December 21, 2020