Twenty-one students from The University of Texas-Pan American made history Saturday, May 12 by being the first group to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in the Physician's Assistant Studies program.
"This achievement is a very proud one for UTPA," said Frank Ambriz, interim program chair and clinical assistant professor. "It has been a challenge, but we are very proud of these students."
The program started at the University as a cooperative program with The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1994. It was extended in 1999 as a full administrative program and received accreditation this year.
The UTPA Physician's Assistant Studies program is the only one of its kind in Texas not on a medical campus. It is designed to give students the skills necessary to provide routine medical care for patients under the supervision of a doctor.
Among these first graduating students is Eleazar Rodriguez, 27, who was accepted into the program during the full accreditation transition.
"I was always interested in the medical profession, but I never knew which route to take," he said. "When I heard about the program, I knew it was something I wanted to do."
It's not easy to enter the program. Each student must take a written exam, submit an essay and interview with faculty. Indeed, the program is so intense, only 25 students from more than 200 applicants are accepted each year.
Rodriguez was not among those 25 the first year he applied. But he wasn't discouraged and during that time he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology.
"I was in school for a very long time, but I really wanted to be a PA, so I applied again the next year and got in," he said.
Once accepted into the program, students spend the next two years in extensive studies. The first year consists of a 12-month didactic curriculum, which allows students to earn 110 hours of coursework. The second year is a 12-month clinical rotation.
"Our students receive almost the same amount of class instruction in just one year that medical students receive during their time in school," Ambriz said. "Then they are provided with the hands-on experience at our local hospitals or doctors' offices."
Students are discouraged from working because of the program's intensity, Ambriz said.
"I had to quit my job," said Rodriguez, who received the program's Julian Castillo Humanitarian Award. "I even had to move to Edinburg because the commuting from San Benito took up too much time."
Rhonda Heffernan, of Houston, was another student who accepted the challenge. The 25-year-old spent all her time studying and traveling from Brownsville to Rio Grande City for her clinical rotation.
Heffernan, who has a degree in bio-medical science from Texas A&M University, also was not accepted on her first attempt. But she has left her mark in the program. She was recently honored with the Academic Excellence Award for maintaining a 3.91 grade point average.
The next step for these two graduates is to pass a national board exam in October to receive their license for practice. Heffernan plans to move to Austin for her practice, and Rodriguez has received several job offers locally.
According to Ambriz, the job market is open for physician assistants in a number of medical settings. Hospitals and private physicians' offices have a high demand for assistance, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.
"The fact that the majority of the graduates will stay in the Valley to practice supports the mission of the University in providing for the needs of the community," said Ambriz, noting a master's degree to the program may be added in a few years. "The job market in Texas is great, and there are four openings for every graduate."