UAMS Physician Assistant Program Celebrates Class of 2023, 10th Anniversary

By Ben Boulden

“We have been around 10 years now, and we have seen a great variety of students come through our program,” said Edward Williams, DMSc, PA-C, chair of the Department of Physician Assistant Studies in the College of Health Professions and the program’s director. “With the class of 2023, we not only celebrate their accomplishments, we also celebrate the accomplishments of nearly 300 alumni out there doing good work for patients in Arkansas and nationwide.”

Because of the disruptions in schedule and planning caused by COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said students at the valediction had their first classes in May 2021 online, and their ability to adapt quickly to that environment was a harbinger of how flexible he expects they will be in their careers in health care.

The PA Class of 2023 pose for one last photo together after the ceremony.

The PA Class of 2023 pose for one last photo together after the ceremony. Image by Bryan CliftonImage by Bryan Clifton

“PAs have the time, knowledge and personal interactive skills to be amazing guides and change the world. I know that firsthand. I married one,” UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA, said at the ceremony. “You will do amazing things and make us proud. As you begin your careers, I hope you will remember the strength and determination that you demonstrated in a challenging program and let that memory prevent you from doubting yourself in the future.”

The chancellor said his own career path has taken some turns he never anticipated, making it necessary for him transition from physician to researcher to educator to administrator and finally to chancellor.

“Being highly trained and exceptionally flexible makes the PA an indispensable asset to the health care system,” said College of Health Professions Dean Susan Long, Ed.D.

Speaking on behalf of the students, Ryan Toliver said that initially he and many of his classmates felt like they were standing just feet in front of the Empire State Building looking for the top of a skyscraper they could barely perceive. Now, they have flown above it and have a “bird’s eye view” of the last 28 months of study, a period that included 13 months of didactic education, 15 months of clinical rotations, 2,300 patient care hours, more than 50 exams, and countless quizzes.

With all that work behind them, the graduating students now can enjoy making and consuming a delicious meal of ramen noodles, said keynote speaker Tiffany Huitt, Ph.D.

Huitt is an associate professor in the College of Medicine and director of the UAMS Anatomical Gift Program. She also teaches gross anatomy in the PA program and the Doctor of Nursing Practice, Nurse Anesthesia program in the College of Nursing.

“Everything you need to know in choosing your path you can learn from ramen noodles,” Huitt said. “The plain, crunchy, cheap staple of any student of life. I would like to share the most important things I have learned about life and my career from ramen.”

To successfully cook ramen noodles, someone must first master the basics of noodles, hot water and a seasoning pack. Once a PA student has graduated and knows the basics of their profession, then they can add the equivalent of carrots, cheese or any other ingredients to give texture and depth to their careers. Two examples she gave were engaging in public service and advocating for better access to health care.

“Number two, try all the flavors. We tend to stick to what we like,” Huitt said. “But, our tastes change over time. We can make a responsible decision on what we do like if we try things. The top predictors of happiness in a career are: environment, autonomy and your capability.”

Finally, she encouraged the Class of 2023 to prepare the ramen noodles of their profession on the stove, not in a microwave. Take the time to develop their careers and to know when to stop cooking so that they can share their knowledge and expertise with others.

“When you choose your own ingredients, your flavor, and you get the timing right, your career will give you joy,” Huitt said. “That will allow you to feed the thousands of patients across the state who desperately need you, and your expertise, passion and moral and ethical compass. And, we, the PA program, UAMS and Arkansas need you to share your talents and step into those opportunities when the time is right. Class of 2023, I am telling you that you are done cooking. It is time for you to share.”

After each student took the stage and put on their long, white coats (compared to the short, white coats they donned when they started their studies), student and faculty awards were announced.

Melissa Halverson, Pharm.D., MPH., an associate professor in the department, presented student awards to five graduates.

  • Academic Excellence — Paige Buffington and Alexia Sebghati
  • Humanitarian Spirit — Carol Bowerman
  • Broad Spectrum — Christy Grihalva
  • Faculty Gold Key — Ryan Toliver

Then, it was the students’ turn to recognize their educators.

  • Didactic Instructor of the Year — Dia Watson
  • Clinical Instructor of the Year — Amy Pintado
  • Faculty Instructor of the Year — Melissa Halverson
Williams introduces the speakers at the ceremony.

Williams introduces the speakers at the ceremony.Image by Bryan Clifton