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Furthering A.T. Still University’s legacy: ATSU-CHC celebrates inaugural commencement on California’s Central Coast

Osaodemwen Diana Omozee, MS, '23, and Kari Nhi Pham, MS, '23

A California commencement

ATSU-CHC’s Central Coast Physician Assistant (CCPA) program marked its inaugural commencement ceremony Friday, Sept. 8, graduating 88 students with their master’s degree in physician assistant (PA) studies. Held at The Granada Theatre, an ornate, 100-year-old historical landmark in the heart of Santa Barbara’s Historic Theatre District, the ceremony celebrated the graduates’ transition from students to providers.

Just as their route to the commencement processional was a winding path from two stories below the stage, up the stairs, and around the building, many of the graduates did not take the straightforward path to becoming PA students. Along with several nontraditional students, the class of 2023 is filled with individuals from all walks of life. Some are first-generation college students. Some are children of immigrants. Some have changed careers, and so on. But one commonality among the entire cohort is their desire to provide whole person healthcare to communities in need.

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

Dr. Sauers also introduced Donald L. Weaver, MD, senior advisor for the National Association of Community Health Centers Clinical Workforce. Dr. Weaver, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general who was instrumental in helping ATSU develop the CCPA program, congratulated graduates, calling them trailblazers.

“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. “As trusted leaders in your community, you will be called upon to heal individuals and to heal the community. We’re confident your training has prepared you well for these roles.”

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

Ron Castle holding award
Dr. Craig Phelps, president of ATSU, presents the President’s Medallion Award for distinguished service to Ronald Castle, CEO of Community Health Centers of the Central Coast.

“I’m just very proud that Community Health Centers has been part of this. It’s a team effort,” Castle said. “We are so excited about your careers ahead and look forward to your serving the underserved, and keep paying it forward.”

O.T. Wendel, PhD, ATSU’s senior vice president for university planning and strategic initiatives, introduced the ceremony’s honorary degree candidate and commencement speaker, Gary M. Wiltz, MD. Dr. Wiltz serves as CEO of Teche Action Clinic and is former chair of the ATSU Board of Trustees.

“Today, in bestowing this honorary degree, we salute Dr. Wiltz’s exceptional legacy and his dedication to community health,” Dr. Wendel said. “His contributions mirror the value of our program and the excellence we envision in our graduates.”

commencement speaker receives honorary degree
Commencement speaker Dr. Gary Wiltz receives the honorary doctor of science degree.

Dr. Wiltz accepted the honorary doctor of science degree then spoke to graduates about the significance of being members of the first class. Of approximately 1,000 applicants, these 88 students were selected for this program. He told them how they were chosen for this opportunity; they were not accepted to this program by accident or luck. He also recalled A.T. Still, DO, and his experience in establishing a new form of medicine and the challenges he faced.

“A first can be likened to a two-edged sword sometimes. It can cut both ways,” Dr. Wiltz said. “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 also spoke to graduates about walking with confidence. From his perspective of 41 years in medicine and having taught and mentored many students from various institutions, he said the most well-prepared graduates come from ATSU.

“Your education will serve you well,” Dr. Wiltz said. “This faculty has no trepidation about sending you out into the medical world.”

The CCPA program

About 60 miles northwest of the ceremony location, in Santa Maria, is where the graduates’ PA education began. On the second floor of the Coast Hills Credit Union, ATSU set up the location for its CCPA program, which welcomed this inaugural class in fall 2021.

CCPA then became the founding program of ATSU-CHC in January 2022 when the Institutional Actions Council of the Higher Learning Commission approved the University’s request to establish its seventh and newest college, ATSU-CHC, as a campus in Santa Maria.

The campus’ home is a 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility with a large learning theater, clinical simulation rooms, library space, student break room, and faculty and staff workspaces. Of the 24-month program, students spend the first 12 months on campus engaging in case studies, interactive learning, projects, and preclinical community experiences. Students spend the final 12 months completing clinical experiences in community health centers (CHCs) across the U.S.

group of graduates
Following the commencement ceremony, groups of graduates gather to celebrate. Left to right, front row: Katie Sham and Liny Varghese; back row: Matthew Chan, Christina Handayan, Angelica Lee, Natalie Laskowicz, Daniel Mai, and Rachel Aroneo.

ATSU’s goal for establishing the CCPA program is to educate community-oriented physician assistants who will provide whole person healthcare to the nation’s medically underserved communities. Faculty and staff work closely with students to help them develop professional attributes and clinical problem-solving skills necessary for efficient and optimal patient care. Ultimately, the program aims to produce providers who enter the CHC system and deliver primary care through the specialties of family medicine, general internal medicine, general pediatrics, women’s health, and behavioral health and psychiatry.

“It’s a program unlike any other in the country,” Dr. Phelps said. “It will continue to serve as a model, along with its academic innovation.”

Futures as bright as the sun

Following the commencement address, graduates made their way to the stage one by one to shake hands, receive their diploma, and be hooded. As their names were called, family and friends from all levels of the theater applauded and cheered.

“When you walk through those doors, your life will be forever changed,” Dr. Phelps said during his closing remarks. “The calling to provide care to others is like no other. Patients and their families will share their most intimate details during times of physical and emotional pain, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Fortunately, your families, faculty, and staff have prepared you for this special calling.”

As the graduates lined up for the recessional, they were all smiles and overwhelmed with emotion, knowing they accomplished their goal.

“It’s been a very long journey,” said John Butler, MS, ’23. “It’s more emotional than any of us thought it would be. I’m the oldest member of the class, and it’s been amazing to see some of the younger students become adults and for me to recapture some of my childhood.”

“You get to know everyone so well,” said Christina Handayan, MS, ’23. “You form study groups, and everyone knows what each other is going through. You really form a bond. It’s like a family you build with the other students.”

graduate with family
Maria Celedon, MS, ’23, celebrates graduation with her family.

Many graduates said crossing the stage was a feeling of excitement and relief. That moment was the culmination of everything to that point – the time and effort put into applications, studying, projects, tests, and rotations.

“My family came to mind,” said Armando Soltero, MS, ’23. “I have three boys and a wife, and these past couple of years there was a lot of time away from them. I’m finally going to have some time to be with them again every day.”

Soltero, like others in his class, is excited to start the next phase of his journey.

“I’ve been hired by a CHC in Santa Maria,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting started and doing what we’ve been preparing for these last couple of years.”

“For them to take a chance on us, and for me to take a chance on the program, we’ve all worked so hard these last two years, this is literally a dream come true,” said Monica Tran, MS, ’23. “To be part of something, the beginning of something, is amazing.”

“We were the first class. We were able to be the pioneers for all of the classes that follow,” said Faison Jackson, MS, ’23. “I’m grateful to be on this journey … to be the first class, learn medicine, and become the best PA I can become.”

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