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YSM's Physician Associate Class of 2021 Celebrates Graduation in Woolsey Hall

December 10, 2021

“I don’t have the words to express how thankful I am that we are together, in person, for today’s celebration. Last year’s commencement was virtual. Maybe because of that, I’m a struck by the beauty of this place and by looking out into the audience and seeing all of you.” Yale School of Medicine Physician Associate (PA) Program Director Alexandria Garino, PhD, PA-C, shared these remarks with the PA Class of 2021 and their families and friends in Woolsey Hall. Over 150 others joined the December 6 graduation celebration virtually. Forty students were honored at the event.

On the 50th anniversary of the PA Program, Garino fittingly shared historical information. Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, the music that accompanied the opening processional, was heard for the first time at a commencement in 1905, in Woolsey Hall—possibly on the same organ currently being played by organist Philip Balkan. The composer, Edward Elgar, received an honorary degree from Yale that year and the piece was played as a tribute to him.

Garino praised the graduates for their “remarkable transformation” during the 28 months of the program, arriving as laypeople, and leaving as clinicians and colleagues. Pointing to the “enormous work, dedication, perseverance, and belief in oneself to make that happen,” she emphasized how the Class of 2021 achieved all they did in the midst of a global pandemic.

Commencement speaker Rita Rienzo, MMSc, PA-C, former faculty and current alumni engagement manager for the PA Program, shared advice based on her path to becoming a PA. She hoped “some of the lessons I’ve learned, will in some way be helpful to you as you embark on this next leg of your own journey.”

Colorfully describing her zigzag route through 22 different jobs before becoming a PA, she demonstrated that not everyone’s path is a straight line. “Sometimes our circumstances determine our path, and sometimes we make choices because they just seem more interesting. And for many of you this will continue as you move forward in your careers. It may take a while to figure out what type of practice you enjoy, what speaks to you. We are fortunate to belong to a profession that allows us that freedom.”

She characterized her second piece of advice as more important. “Be kind to the student, the new person, the anxious family member, the overworked nurse. You have the power to reverse the negativity, even if it is just for one person in one encounter.” She noted that anger is actually pain or fear, common elements in medicine. She stated, “Acknowledging and respecting the humanity of those around you is nothing short of sacred. It is not always easy. Be the shelter from the storm. Be kind.”

Jean and David W. Wallace Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD, also shared advice, encouraging the graduates “to remain curious and pursue questions about your patients to the greatest depths. Pay attention to the outliers. Ask why. The diseases you are treating today are not the diseases you will be treating in 10 or 20 years.” Additionally, she reminded them never to lose perspective, to "understand your values and what anchors you.” Noting the importance of families, she paused to thank those present in Woolsey Hall—and virtually—for their support of the graduates.

The PA profession plays a key role in addressing what Brown views as the greatest problem facing medicine: fragmentation of medical care, which results in duplication and added expense, frustration for patients, and errors in handoffs. She told the graduates, “Let me say that you have never been needed more.”

Robert Johnston, MA, whom classmates had selected to deliver the student address, unexpectedly had to miss the ceremony. Kyle Deaver, another graduate, read Johnston’s remarks, which discussed “the most integral element of our experience here—people—our patients, peers, and mentors.” Johnston shared a poignant story of an evening he spent in the hospital with an older patient, who wanted to talk. They discussed the gentleman’s younger days, where he grew up, what he liked to do, books, and poets. When it began to get late, the patient hugged Johnston and they said good-bye. The patient died before Johnston saw him again.

Johnston reflected, “I think each of us, in the class today, had experiences like this over the course of our training, moments that leave you with questions about what care means if your patient dies, what more could be done, and what their families will think and feel.” He discussed how it can leave one with a sense of sadness, disappointment, and a feeling of inadequacy, adding “But you also remember that you did get to connect with a particular patient, your patient, another person, in a very special way for a short time. And you keep moving forward from that moment. You strive to get better. You continue your journey because of whatever underlying idea is keeping you from giving up.”

PA Program leadership announced the recipients of two awards during the ceremony:

Dr. John P. Hayslett Award For Overall Academic Excellence, presented to a student who achieved academic excellence through all phases of the curriculum, embraced extracurricular opportunities, and whose performance exemplified dedication to patient care: Alecia Cuniff, Class of 2021 and Hannah Carson, Class of 2021

Yale Physician Associate Program Leadership Award, which goes to the student who went beyond the academic requirements to motivate and inspire others: Maria Dalzell, Class of 2021

Several awards, which the graduating class votes on, also were announced:

Outstanding Didactic Course Award, for dedication and excellence in the classroom: William Stewart, PhD, professor of surgery, Section Chief of Gross Anatomy

Outstanding Preceptor Award, for dedication and excellence in clinical education: Joy Reyes, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry

Outstanding Clinical Site Award, for the clinical rotation site that provides exemplary clinical teaching: St. Mary’s Primary Care

Jack Cole Society Award, for significant contributions in support of the PA profession: Maria Dalzell, Class of 2021

Class of 2021 Award, for support and dedication to the Yale PA Program and the Class of 2021: Rosana Gonzalez-Colaso, PharmD, MPH, assistant professor, director of research education

Submitted by Abigail Roth on December 10, 2021