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Physician Associate Class of 2023 Celebrated at Graduation Ceremony

December 19, 2023
by Abigail Roth

Thirty-nine Yale School of Medicine Physician Associate (PA) Program students received their Master of Medical Science degree at a ceremony in Woolsey Hall on December 4, 2023. PA Program Director David Brissette, MMSc, PA-C, stated in welcoming remarks, “Today you will become part of the legacy and history of the sixth oldest PA program in the country. You join over 1,400 Yale Physician Associate graduates, many of whom have distinguished themselves as outstanding clinicians and leaders in the PA profession.”

Commencement speaker and 1986 graduate of the YSM PA Program Howard Straker, EdD, MPH, PA-C, told the students that for graduates of the program, “leadership will be part of your professional journey.” (Straker serves as director of the Joint Degree PA/MPH Program, Department of PA Studies, George Washington University, and associate professor of Physician Assistant Studies and of Prevention and Community Health.)

Life lessons

He also shared life lessons. His first lesson was: “Lead from service,” something he learned from his mother, who, he said, “practiced servant leadership.” Servant Leadership, Straker explained, “is an influential behavior that places the well-being of others before one’s own self-interest. Servant leaders are attentive to the concerns of the community, the team, or ‘followers.’” PAs, Straker said, “can easily fit into servant leadership roles.”

Other advice Straker shared included:

Recognize your privilege—use it help others,” pointing out, “your status as a PA gives you a societal privilege into the lives of your patients and their communities. Use this privilege to make changes to forward their lives.”

Prepare yourself by being solid in knowing your values, creating a vision—a direction—in which to travel.” He also encouraged the graduates to continue gaining knowledge and acquiring skills.

Be open to possibilities,” Straker said, explaining that unplanned opportunities “can change your planned trajectory for the better.”

Find your voice and find a way to bring it to the table.” Straker then brought his voice to an issue that has centered his PA journey. He described how, “As the only African American in my class, I, along with our three Asian students, watched how racism was embedded in our medical system and medical education.” The only time a patient’s race was mentioned was when they were non-white, and, Straker said, “It seemed that being Black was considered a risk factor for every disease.” When he asked why, he said his lecturers replied it was probably genetic. Straker explained, “There was an assumption that race was biological.” While we now know there is not a race gene, he continued, “unfortunately, today many of those false underlying assumptions about race have been embedded in medicine, in our algorithms and guidelines, and we did not—do not—realize it.”

While there has been improvement, he continued, “medicine can be slow to change,” pointing out, for example, that there are still many PFT (pulmonary function test) spirometers that require providers to input race to receive a reading. “These calculations have deleterious effects. We have to be aware of these and other assumptions. We have undo, remove these assumptions from our daily practices so we can achieve health equity.”

He told the graduates that it is now their turn to be heard. “You are the recipients of rigorous education. You have skills others can and will depend on. Step up and be heard. You don’t need to be loud but you cannot be silent. For too long, PAs have been healthcare’s best kept secret.”

Straker’s final lesson: “It is not about me. It is about the patients, the community.”

Grace, professionalism, and curiosity

The graduating class also heard words of congratulations and advice from Brissette; Nancy J. Brown, MD, Jean and David W. Wallace Dean and C.N.H Long Professor of Internal Medicine; and graduating student Ana Eliza Souza Cunha, MMSc. Souza Cunha told her classmates they had “incredible bravery to start this journey,” and challenge themselves to become future clinicians. “In a few months we will be starting the profession that we dreamed of, cried for, and sweated over,” she continued. “Soon, we will be starting jobs in the fields of our choice with the patients that reminds us why we decided to love medicine.”

Brissette pointed to how the class navigated their 28-month program, including the many challenges posed by a global pandemic. “You emerge as one of the most resilient classes to graduate from the Yale PA Program,” he said. “With grace and professionalism, you faced uncertainties and challenges head-on, showcasing your readiness for the diverse landscape of health care. Each of you brings something unique and special to the patients you will care for, and we commend you for your exceptional qualities.”

“To the class of 2023 and your families, we are extremely proud of you,” echoed Brown, describing how the class came from diverse backgrounds, and “coalesced into a community,” and how many gave back to the broader community by volunteering at local non-profits helping uninsured adults, refugees, and others. Brown also shared an experience from when she was a third-year medical student, stating, “I remember it like yesterday,” when the medical team's lack of understanding of a lab value led to an adverse outcome.

“What I learned and what I hope to impress upon you,” Brown continued, “is not that you need to know everything. You cannot. But you must take a thorough history, and you must pay attention to every piece of evidence; when something does not fit, pursue that. There are no shortcuts.” Brown also reminded the graduates that much of their knowledge will become obsolete, requiring that they learn constantly. That is why, she noted, “our mission statement reads: ‘Yale School of Medicine educates and nurtures creative leaders in medicine and science, promoting curiosity and critical inquiry in an inclusive environment enriched by diversity.’”

Kristen Joy Cushing Endowed Scholarship

For the first time, the ceremony included the announcement of the Kristen Joy Cushing Endowed Scholarship award to support the educational expenses of the recipient. Cushing, a beloved 2002 graduate of the PA Program, died in October 2021. Her family and friends created this endowed scholarship to honor her memory and support students who share her passion for providing care to the underserved. Kristen's husband, Will Cushing, PA-C, MMSc ’02, presented the award to Class of 2023 graduate Audrey Oweimrin, MMSc.

Annual awards

Additionally, the recipients of the following traditional awards were announced.

Awards selected by Yale PA Program Faculty

Dr. John P. Hayslett Award For Overall Academic Excellence
Ashlyn Shavers, MMSc

Yale Physician Associate Program Leadership Award
Ana Eliza Souza Cunha, MMSC

Awards selected by the PA Class of 2023

Outstanding Didactic Course Award
Robert Camp, PhD, MD
Associate Research Scientist in Pathology

Outstanding Preceptor Award
Yuliya Riat, MD
Director of Section of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care Services, Waterbury Hospital; Associate Clinical Professor, Yale University School of Medicine

Outstanding Clinical Site Award
YNHH Emergency Medicine

Jack Cole Society Award
For significant contributions in support of the PA profession
Jonathan Weber, MA, PA-C, DFAAPA

Assistant Professor in the Physician Associate Program, Department of Medicine; Director of Didactic Education, Yale School of Medicine Physician Associate Program

Class of 2023 Award
For support and dedication to the Yale PA Program and the Class of 2023
David Brissette, MMSc, PA-C

Assistant Professor in the Physician Associate Program, Department of Medicine; Director of the Physician Associate Program

Submitted by Abigail Roth on December 15, 2023