Inaugural physician assistant class celebrates commencement, remotely

Three years after the Stanford School of Medicine launched its master of science in physician assistant studies program, all 27 members of the first class graduated.

Angelica Yasawadi, who graduated with a master's degree in physician assistant studies, with her dog, Eevee, during the medical school's virtual commencement ceremony.
Peter Yasawadi

Carly King was thrilled to be accepted to the Stanford School of Medicine’s physician assistant program, but she was a little hesitant about enrolling: The master’s degree program was new, and she didn’t know how that would affect the curriculum.

What convinced her to matriculate was the school’s reputation, along with the fact that she’d be taking half her classes with the medical students. Her decision paid off: She passed her certifying exam in April, and in the fall, she’ll start an oncology fellowship at Stanford Health Care.

“Now that we’ve graduated, we realized how well prepared we are,” she said. 

Noting the timing of the graduation — with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting African Americans and ongoing demonstrations against racism — she added, “I feel extremely privileged to have been part of this inaugural class. I know my classmates and I are graduating with awareness of racial injustice and health care inequality, and a commitment to address those issues.” 

‘Incredible foundation’

For more than 40 years, the medical school collaborated with Foothill College, a nearby community college, in educating physician assistant students through an undergraduate program. But starting this year, all physician assistant programs must be at the graduate level for accreditation, so leaders at the School of Medicine created a nine-quarter master’s degree program, which debuted in 2017. 

“Stanford had this incredible foundation under which a PA program could be built,” said Susan Fernandes, PA-C, director of the master’s program. She and Rhonda Larsen, PA-C, associate program director, designed the curriculum. They wanted MD students to understand the capabilities of PAs, so they put the two groups in many classes together.  

“Today, it’s all about team-based care,” Larsen said. “That has to start in the classroom. Medical students, as future physicians, will be quarterbacking, and they need to know what their team can do.”

Carly King celebrates her graduation from the School of Medicine's physician assistant program with her family in Eugene, Oregon.
Courtesy of Carly King

Twenty-seven students — winnowed from about 2,000 applicants — enrolled the first year of the new program, and all graduated. They spent five quarters learning the science of medicine, then a year undergoing clinical rotations, including at least one monthlong stint at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California, 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border.

A fairly smooth start

King said that despite its newness, the program went fairly smoothly. And the faculty “were super open about feedback — things like how classes should be structured and when to have tests.”

 The faculty adjusted the curriculum for the inaugural class as the need arose, and made additional changes for subsequent classes. “We didn’t get everything right out of the gate,” Fernandes said, “but the students were very forgiving.” 

Larsen noted that all the students who have taken the certifying exam have passed it, and overall, the class excelled. “In every category they scored above the national average,” she said.

As the students celebrated their achievement via video, Andrew Nevins, MD, associate professor of infectious diseases and medical director of the PA program, reflected on the three years since the program launched. 

“We set out to make a top-notch rigorous program, and these students embraced it,” he said. “I wish we could all be together in person, but it doesn’t diminish their accomplishment and the pride we have in them.” 



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