The 81 students who recently matriculated into Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) Physician Assistant Online (PA Online) Program have wide ranging backgrounds that will serve them well in their future careers.
Collectively they have almost one million hours of health care experience, in varied fields including as a hospital corpsman, dental hygienist, and surgical technologist. Ranging in age from 23 to 55, 27% already have an advanced degree.
The students are participating from 26 states, with 22% living in rural areas and 28% in medically-underserved communities. Thirty-seven percent are the first in their family to attend college and 28% are underrepresented in medicine. Additionally, 17% are veterans or active military.
Program Director and Associate Professor James Van Rhee M.S., PA-C says, “a diverse student body brings different ideas and experiences to the classroom, enhancing the learning of everyone involved.” While the students’ paths differ, they share a passion for studying and practicing medicine to help others.
From the Air Force to PA School
First-year Yale PA Online student Geof Fortier joined the U.S. Air Force immediately after graduating from high school in Guam. In 2016, he separated from the military after eight years as an Air Force dental technician to attend college and prepare for PA school.
He explains that as he advanced in the military and took on supervisory roles not associated with medical care, he realized he loved patient care and medicine. Through conversations with an oral surgeon colleague, he became interested in the PA profession. As he learned about PAs’ full scope of care, he knew it was the role that fit his personality best and would give him the more direct impact on patients’ health that he was looking for.
For Fortier, the fact that Yale PA Online enabled him to stay in his community was important. His wife is Active Duty with the Air Force and cannot move. Being away from her and their two kids “would have made PA school impossible for me to succeed. They are my biggest support system.”
Reflecting on his path post-graduation, while his location will depend on where the Air Force sends his wife, Fortier is leaning toward primary care. “I know there is a shortage in primary care providers, and I feel that I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a PA as a Yale graduate, so I feel almost an obligation to help with this shortage.”
April Sanders, another first-year Yale PA Online student, explains that personal experience led her to the profession. Her college major was industrial, manufacturing & systems engineering, and after graduating, she spent three years as a technology development engineer at AT&T's headquarters in Dallas.
However, Sanders said she has a history of battling with personal health issues and knows what it is like to have a transparent, knowledgeable, relatable practitioner in her corner. “I want to be that provider for other patients in the future,” she said. “The experience of connecting with others and supporting them on their health journey is truly what I want to dedicate myself and my career to.”
Sanders gained health care experience as a patient care technician and medical scribe to prepare to apply to PA school. Relocating for PA school would have been difficult for Sanders, since her husband, mother, and in-laws would have remained in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She is glad to be able to complete school in her hometown, as Yale PA Online allows for, surrounded by her support system in the community she loves. Sanders hopes to practice in the Dallas-Fort Worth area after graduating, ideally in an outpatient setting focused on either psychiatry or women’s health/gynecology.
She adds, “I am a proud first-generation Caribbean-American—mother originally from Haiti, father originally from Guyana—and I am looking forward to representing my culture in the world of medicine!”
First-year Yale PA Online student Eric Liang’s decision to go to PA school grew out of his experience as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and in clinical informatics. After attending college at Northwestern University and obtaining a master’s in speech-language pathology at the University of Iowa, he moved to the medically-underserved area of Salinas, California. For three years he worked as an SLP, followed by two years in clinical informatics helping a local hospital implement Epic.
“As an SLP, I enjoyed patient care, but I felt that something was missing.” He had shifted to informatics thinking that might suit him better but, “this turned out not to be the case, and I had two epiphanies. The first was that I need to work as a clinician, treating patients directly. The second was that my true passion lay in medicine.”
Though he originally considered medical school—he had taken pre-medical courses in college and his mother is a physician—Liang says that after learning more about the PA profession and shadowing several local PAs, he realized it was his calling.
Liang believes Yale PA Online represents the future of health care education, because “there are many regions with limited access to educational institutions, and as a result there are many promising students who may miss out on the chance to become highly-skilled clinicians.” It would have been difficult for Liang to move because of his wife’s career, and he says Yale PA Online was an incredible opportunity.
Acting on Inspiration
First-year Yale PA Online student Sarah Colon, who was raised and lives in New York City (NYC), is a self-described non-traditional student. Unsure what career path she wanted to follow after high school, she decided to spend several years working and gaining experience as a medical assistant. This developed her interest in health care. Shortly after taking a medical assistant certification course, Colon went back to college, majoring in human biology.
Colon adds, “as a young adult without access to health insurance, I witnessed firsthand the shortage of affordable health care. Unable to bear the expenses, I visited free clinics, often shuffling from provider to provider. Having experienced this lack of stability, I yearned to someday offer individuals, like myself, consistent and quality health care regardless of their financial capabilities and socioeconomic background. The PAs I encountered during this time did not care what insurance I did or did not have; they provided me with the absolute best care, inspiring me to someday do the same for others.”
Colon knew Yale PA Online was the right fit for her. It was important for her to stay in NYC for PA school, with the hope of someday serving and giving back to her community. And she adds, “I especially loved that Yale's program held no preference to a specific type of student; not everyone comes from a traditional background with a set timeline.”