Nearly 90 members of the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Physician Assistant (PA) Online Program Classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022—and hundreds of family and friends—gathered on May 6 in Woolsey Hall to celebrate at the program’s first graduation ceremony. Since the inaugural cohort of students began the 28-month program in January 2018, 162 have completed the program and received their master of medical science (MMSc) degree.
Because students in the program participate from their home communities— 42 states and the District of Columbia across the three classes—the COVID-19 pandemic prevented an in-person ceremony, even one restricted to graduates, before this year. Program Director James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, recognizes “the irony that we are an online program but did not have an online graduation. I wanted us to get together to celebrate.” Van Rhee characterized the graduates as pioneers, and said the program “pushed the envelope in innovation not just in PA education, but in medical education.”
In her remarks congratulating the graduates, Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS, Deputy Dean for Education and Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medical Education, stated, “When this program began, we heard some skepticism about online classes and coursework. As we all know, the pandemic dramatically changed the worldview on remote learning, and the Yale PA Online Program had a head start on how to creatively use technology to make online learning powerfully engaging.”
Addressing primary care provider shortage
Illuzzi said one reason Yale created the program was to help address the shortage of primary care providers across the United States. “This program uniquely supports students to live, learn, and eventually work in their home communities,” said Illuzzi, adding that the tremendous geographic diversity of the graduates “shows the potential of this program to have an impact on our country’s health care needs. Wherever your career leads you, whether your home community or a new location, whether practicing primary care, as many of you will do, or in a specialty practice, you will provide much-needed care to your future patients.”
Noting how COVID-19 had complicated the logistics of clinical training and put health care providers on the front lines, Illuzzi thanked the families and friends who supported the graduates through the program, and expressed gratitude to “all our graduates for wanting to serve in a profession where providing care to others is the highest priority.”
A representative from each class gave an address; a theme that spanned all their remarks was how the pandemic had impacted their class’s experience in the program.
Two months after her class matriculated, the pandemic began and, as Erin Hillis MMSc ’22 described, while the world was turned upside down, “this class never missed a beat and forged on.” She reflected on the challenges—including classmates having children home from school and spouses who lost jobs—and asked the graduates to turn and look at the family and friends in the audience. “These people behind us are our reason, our push to continue to fight. With everything against our favor, we defied the odds, with the help and support of the faculty and our support systems. We made it here today, together, to graduate, to go off and provide our communities the best medical care that everyone deserves.”
Mary Elliott, PhD, MMSc ’21, PA-C, similarly observed, “We all faced challenges in becoming PAs—whether quiet setbacks on one hand or, on the other, major disruptions I think of as ‘cosmic smacks’ such as COVID-19, that jolted the plan along the way, both before and during PA school.” She asked her classmates to reflect on who were their anchors “when the comet hit and the ground caved in.” Elliott said graduation day was about those people, and extended thanks to them, “for anchoring us when the center was not holding.”
"We are among those who have chosen to help."
Shiva Kasravi, MMSc ’20, PA-C, shared a story her family had told her about life in wartime Iran, which reminded her that “hard times are not unique to us, to our time, or to our place. Hard times will come, as they surely did, right as my class was graduating and preparing to enter our new careers. And when hard times come, for a person, a country, or the world, we are among those who have chosen to help. The fact is, medicine is a calling to see people through extraordinary and hard times.”
Kasravi pointed to a silver lining of the delayed ceremony, “Most of the time, graduation speeches can only offer projection. They look toward an optimistic but ultimately unknown future. In the case of my class, it has now been two years since we started our careers,” adding “I can actually testify to the diverse and successful clinicians we have become.”
Echoing Illuzzi’s reference to a goal of the program, Kasravi stated, “Thanks to Yale’s decision to implement this program, our class now consists of a critical access family medicine PA in rural Nebraska, a critical access emergency room PA in rural Montana, an FQHC primary care PA in Phoenix, Arizona, and a clinical lipid specialist in Boise, Idaho, just to give a very small sample. We practice from Hawaii to Connecticut, in primary care, urgent care, mental health, infectious disease, toxicology, and virtually every surgical subspecialty. We serve those with low incomes, refugees, unaccompanied minors, those with cancer, those who need transplants.” After referring to her own work with Afghan refugees in the Sacramento area and the agricultural population in California’s Central Valley, she stated, “If Yale’s intention was to bridge gaps in health care, I would say it has succeeded.”
Twenty-four students from across the three classes, plus Associate Program Director Jacqui Comshaw, MPA; Assistant Professor Adjunct Stephanie Neary, MPA, MMS, PA-C; Clinical Site Coordinator Mary Ruggeri MMSc ’20, MEd, PA-C; and Assistant Professor Adjunct Mary Showstark, MPAS, PA-C were inducted into the Pi Alpha National Honor Society.