UAMS Physician Assistant Class of 2021 Evokes Tears, Smiles

By Ben Boulden

Edward Williams, left, and Amber Teigen, right, hood one of the Class of 2021 graduates just before she receives her long white coat from the stack of coats on a nearby table.

Edward Williams, left, and Amber Teigen, right, hood one of the Class of 2021 graduates just before she receives her long white coat from the stack of folded coats on a nearby table.Image by Bryan Clifton

Williams, MPAS, PA-C, is chair of the Department of Physician Assistant Studies in the College of Health Professions and director of the Physician Assistant (PA) program.

Emotions were high as the class said their goodbyes as their family and friends watched online.

“Whether you are here in person or watching us remotely, there is a lot of passion and a lot of love and a lot of caring in the Class of 2021,” Williams said. “I’m glad to see you go, but I will miss you all. I know that sentiment is shared by all the faculty, all the staff and the mentors who have come in contact with you.”

For the 39 students in the Class of 2021, it was the final gathering of their graduate education, which began with them receiving a short white coat two years ago at the beginning of their studies and a long white coat and Masters hood during the valediction.

Keynote speaker Anne Brown addresses the audience at the Valediction Ceremony.

Keynote speaker Anne Brown addresses the audience at the Valediction Ceremony.Image by Bryan Clifton

The hooding is a traditional recognition for completing studies in a graduate program for a master’s degree or doctoral degree. A faculty member places a velvet sash, called the hood, over the shoulders of the student in valediction or graduation ceremony. Its colors typically represent the college and the program.

Both Phyllis Fields, M.Ed., College of Health Professions Associate Dean of Student Affairs, and keynote speaker Anne Brown, MPAS, PA-C, , and  president elect of the Arkansas Academy of Physician Assistants explained the meaning of the valediction’s scholastic rituals.

“Today we celebrate your transition from the short white coat to the long white coat,” Brown said. “The difference in length between these two coats represents the knowledge and wisdom that you have accumulated over the past 28 months.”

Fields told the class they are joining the 9% of Americans who have master’s degrees.

Jami Howe, Class of 2021 president, addressed her fellow graduates and used a train metaphor to describe the hard work and long hours required to become a part of that 9%.

Edward Williams speaks at the start of the valediction ceremony.

Edward Williams welcomes participating in or watching the valediction ceremony.Image by Bryan Clifton

She also recounted some lighter moments of fun that alleviated some of the academic, intellectual pressures. Those moments included faculty dressed as “medically themed crayons” and students as “tacky tourists” seeing faculty in the “natural habitats” of their offices describing their various areas of interest and expertise.

“Yes, we also were a silly class, but we were an active class especially with outdoor games,” Howe said. “Our class could break the tension and stress of the day with many games of volleyball, spike ball, Frisbee, you name it. We almost killed the new grass on the courtyard.”

Howe introduced Brown, who also works as a physician assistant at Baptist Health Family Clinic West.

“Think of this coat like a tapestry – a woven garment made from your unique education, experiences, and your personality as a health care provider,” Brown said. “Each thread in your tapestry represents a part of your education and your experiences leading you to this point so far. As you continue to learn, your coat continues to grow.”

Some are threads of joy from achievements like the first time a physician assistant correctly makes a difficult diagnosis or closes a surgical incision,” she said. “Other threads are more challenging like telling a patient they have cancer or informing a family their loved one won’t be coming home.”

One thread Brown said no graduating class has had before is an evidence-based education in how to fight the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“Today, I want you to forget everything that you think you have ‘missed out’ on by completing your degree during this incredibly challenging period of time,” Brown said. “Instead, I want you to take pride in the unique opportunity that you have been given. You are entering the medical profession with more preparation for this pandemic than any other class before you.”

Everyone in health care has been learning how to treat patients with COVID-19 and how to educate the public on the best, safe practices to limiting their risk of infection, she said. That includes experienced physicians, nurses, physician assistants and other health care professionals, some of whom have not had the same access to the latest, up-to-date information about the pandemic that the Class of 2021 has had, Brown said.

Several students and faculty members were also honored during the ceremony. Melissa Halverson, Pharm.D., M.P.H. presented student awards to four graduates.

They were:

  • Academic Excellence — Brittany Pint
  • Humanitarian Spirit — Jami Howe
  • Broad Spectrum — Timothy Richardson
  • Faculty Gold Key — Bria Mays

Then it was the students’ turn to recognize their educators. Mays, Nicole Oulela and Alexandra De La O recognized the following faculty members:

  • Didactic Instructor of the Year — Anne Brown
  • Clinical Instructor of the Year — Tommy Love
  • Faculty Teacher of the Year — Amber Teigen