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ATSU-CHC graduates inaugural CCPA class

A.T. Still University’s College for Healthy Communities (ATSU-CHC) graduated its inaugural Central Coast Physician Assistant (CCPA) program class on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, at The Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara, California.

Eighty-eight students received their master of science in physician assistant studies degree, having been a part of the pioneering CCPA class who are now prepared to provide whole person healthcare to underserved communities across the nation.

“Your tireless pursuit of knowledge, combined with your unwavering passion for serving the underserved, has set you apart as culturally proficient healthcare providers. You’ve embraced the ideals of compassion, empathy, and social justice, recognizing that healthcare is not a privilege, but a fundamental human right,” said Eric Sauers, PhD, ’97, professor and dean of ATSU-CHC, who welcomed graduates and guests and delivered the ceremony’s introductions. 

Donald L. Weaver, MD, senior advisor, National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) Clinical Workforce, spoke at the ceremony on behalf of NACHC, welcoming students to the CHC family and honoring them as trailblazers in both the program and PA profession.

“It’s been two years since we gathered in Santa Maria as you prepared for take-off. While there may have been some unanticipated wind gusts, you weathered the storms and you’re here. We welcome each of you to the health center family. Many will be working in health centers across the country, and all of you are indelibly imprinted with the health center community-oriented primary care model – healthcare driven by the community,” Dr. Weaver said.

Following Dr. Weaver’s address, ATSU President Craig Phelps, DO, ’84, presented Ronald Castle, CEO, Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, with the 2023 President’s Medallion Distinguished Service award. Castle was recognized for his support in the establishment of the CCPA program and his commitment to nurturing the next generation of healthcare leaders.

“As an early and steadfast supporter of ATSU, Mr. Castle quickly committed Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, along with his staff and physicians, as a clinical education site for our PA students, helped locate the clinical education sites in California, and served as a counselor in many areas, including integrating the ATSU campus into the Santa Maria community,” said Dr. Phelps said.

O.T. Wendel, PhD, senior vice president for university planning and strategic initiatives, introduced the ceremony’s honorary degree candidate and commencement speaker, Gary M. Wiltz, MD, CEO, Teche Action Clinic (TAC), former chair, ATSU board of trustees. Dr. Wiltz was presented with the honorary doctor of science (honoris causa) degree.

“Dr. Wiltz served on the ATSU board of trustees from 2013-22, and his contributions as the board chair from 2018-20 spurred the inception of ATSU’s Santa Maria campus and the CCPA program. Today, in bestowing this honorary degree, we salute Dr. Wiltz’s exceptional legacy and his dedication to community health. His contributions mirror the value of our program and the excellence we envision in our graduates,” Dr. Wendel said. 

TAC is a network of 16 federally qualified health centers (FQHC) located in seven parishes in southwest Louisiana, serving more than 25,000 patients. Dr. Wiltz began his medical career at TAC in 1982 as medical director and has worked to champion TAC’s mission and commitment to community engagement and a patient-centered approach.

Dr. Wiltz spoke to graduates about the significance of being a part of the first graduating class, saying, “A first can be likened to a two-edged sword sometimes. It can cut both ways. It has joys and pains, it can bring reward and punishment. It also has its share of happiness and sadness, confidence and fear, memories and regrets, acclaim and disdain.”

He added, “For the most part, other than the nurse, you’ll be the first provider that a patient will encounter for his or her office visit. It will be your first impression in accounting that patient’s chief complaint, or I like to say chief concern, to determine what the first step will be in their medical plan.

“I have no doubt that you will be academically fit to the job. So take that confidence, it will serve you very well.”

Watch the full ceremony and check out more photos below!


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