Diverse Class of 80 Aspiring PAs Begins Yale’s Physician Assistant Online Program

by Abigail Roth | This was originally posted by Yale School of Medicine.

Diverse Class Begins Yale's Physician Assistant Program

Devon Schmidt, Scotesia Dunlap, and Tedan Henkel

Biomedical engineer for a medical device company. Health Science teacher. U.S. Navy Intelligence professional. Hospital administrator. These roles, held by four members of the Yale School of Medicine Physician Assistant Online (PA Online) Program Class of 2024 prior to starting PA school, are reflective of the class’s diversity. The 80 students in the class began the 28-month program on January 4, 2022.

Class members live in 28 different states; since the program began five years ago, students have come from 44 states and the District of Columbia. The program is designed so that students do not have to relocate. In their first year, students participate in highly interactive classes and course work online, as well as 120+ hours of patient care in or near their home community. Students then spend 15 months performing clinical rotations in or near their home communities. One aim of the program is to train PAs who will practice in their home communities as a way to address the country’s significant primary care needs. Thirty-five percent of the students in the incoming class come from medically-underserved areas and 23% from rural locations.

The geographic flexibility leads to an older class, with an average age of 31 and students ranging from 21 to 52 years-old. Twenty-four percent of students already have an advanced degree, 43% are first-generation, and 25% are underrepresented in medicine.

Yale PA Online Program Director James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, says, “Every year as we start a new cohort, I am amazed by the wide and varied backgrounds and experiences our students bring to the program.” Learn more about a few members of the class below.

Advocating for Underserved Patients

Tedan Henkel, who grew up in China and moved to the United States during high school, views the diversity of the Yale PA Online Program as one of its strengths. “I am an immigrant and had a very different childhood growing up, and finding other students who also share that part of their life stories has been super wonderful.”

Henkel, who studied biochemistry/biotechnology in college and received a master’s in biomedical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, realized she wanted to be a PA while working as a biomedical engineer in a medical device company making innovative devices for a catheterization laboratory. During that time, she experienced an unexpected family loss due to an incident in a medically-underserved area. Henkel realized that as an engineer, she was privileged to bring new interventions/solutions to many medical problems, but lots of patients whose lives depend on those interventions could not receive them due to a lack of financial resources and other social determinant factors. “That’s when I realized I want to work in a role that can advocate for those patients and ensure they can receive those interventions if needed,” says Henkel.

Being able to move closer to her extended family was one reason Henkel was attracted to Yale PA Online, especially because she and her husband recently had a child and need family members to help provide child support. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the effectiveness of online learning, and she thinks it will be even more prevalent in the future.

Regarding her own future, Henkel says she and her husband “always wanted to see if we could help in a remote area such as Alaska or Navajo Nation,” adding “however, at this point, we will see where life leads us to.”

Serving Rural Communities

Scotesia Dunlap, who lives in the small town of Norwood, North Carolina, where she also grew up, has an extensive background in science and medicine. She studied public health—with a pre-med concentration—in college, received a master’s in physiology from North Carolina State University, taught health science, and was an emergency medical technician-basic, as well as a certified nursing assistant. Her desire to be a PA “is driven by my passion for medicine, health care, patient education, and my interest in multiple specialties.”

“Every year as we start a new cohort, I am amazed by the wide and varied backgrounds and experiences our students bring to the program.”

James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, Yale PA Online Program Director

There are a variety of reasons Dunlap says she was drawn to the Yale PA Online Program, but the flexibility of the asynchronous and synchronous learning platforms was most significant. She explains that moving for school would have required taking out additional loans and being separated from her support systems in her hometown.

Another reason it is beneficial to engage in clinical rotations in and near Norwood is that, as Dunlap expresses, “My ultimate goal is to serve rural communities and it would be profound to practice in my community.”

Serving Medically-Underserved Communities

Jeffrey Mank, who majored in psychology with a minor in neuroscience, first realized he wanted to be a PA when he worked as a medical assistant in an orthopedic clinic shortly after college. The flexibility to move laterally between specialties attracted him to the PA profession. However, he took a meaningful detour before starting PA school: joining the US Navy in 2013, where he did intelligence work.

Mank now has two children, a wife, and a house in Hawaii. When he was ready to go to PA school, he chose the Yale PA Online Program largely “for its flexibility and to remain with my family. Leaving them to join a traditional PA school would be very difficult.”

While Mank hopes eventually to practice in Hawaii, he is “open to working in other medically-underserved places.”

Helping Individuals

Devon Schmidt, who grew up near and currently lives in Long Beach, California, has been interested in working in health care since he majored in biology in college. He was not sure what role would be the best fit for him, and realized gaining real world experience would help him decide. Seven years in a variety of roles, including as a patient care coordinator and, most recently, as the director of business development and intake at Ocean View Psychiatric Health Facility (OVPHF)—a small private hospital in Long Beach—allowed him to gain insights into what different providers do.

He decided the PA profession was the best fit for him, in part because of the flexibility of practice options and because of the shorter training timeline relative to becoming a doctor. He also is excited about the role of PAs in patient care and believes that as a PA he can “truly help individuals.”

Schmidt describes how he serendipitously learned about the Yale PA Online Program when, in his role at OVPHF, he saw a request from the program to have a student participate in a clinical rotation at the hospital. He then began researching the program and comparing it to others, and was excited to discover that Yale PA Online shared his values, had an excellent curricular model, and was highly reputable. The geographic flexibility of the hybrid model, including where clinical rotations can occur, was another draw, as Schmidt’s partner is also in health care and is completing his medical training on the East Coast.

Schmidt is grateful to be part of the program, and hopes to one day blend clinical work with an administrative role. He has an excellent role model for this approach: his mom is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and a hospital administrator.