PA program enters year 2

Students in Campbell’s inaugural physician assistant class learn it takes a team effort to succeed

Pat Chaney and Sunny Sawyer’s backgrounds couldn’t be any more different.

Chaney retired from the military recently and is a 40-year-old Campbell alumnus; Sawyer hails from Sacramento, Calif., and is a 2008 graduate of UC-Davis who entered the field geological surveying right out of college.

They’ll spend the next year eating, breathing, studying and, most importantly, learning with 38 others as the second class of Campbell University’s physician assistant program. And as this class tackles its grueling 12-month course load, the inaugural class will enter a 15-month program of clinical rotations at some of the state’s top hospitals and clinics before graduating in December 2013.

In its second year, the physician assistant program is running on all cylinders, with 74 students working toward their degree. And if Year 1 was all about laying a foundation, Year 2 will be about building on its early success.

“I feel we had a strong program in the first year …amazingly strong for a new program,” said Betty Lynne Johnson, associate professor of health professional sciences and a certified physician assistant. “[PA Director Tom] Colletti and [Academic Coordinator David] Coniglio laid the groundwork because of their expertise and experience in developing a program prior to coming to Campbell. That was incredibly beneficial.”

All 34 students who started the program in its first year made it to the rotation phase, which Johnson attributes to that class’ closeness and willingness to work together rather than compete against each other.

“That was an intentional effort on the part of our faculty - to show them this is a team effort,” Johnson said. “They’re thrown together constantly, about eight hours a day. But that’s the good thing about PA education. These students come from varied backgrounds, and here they have the ability to draw from each others’ strengths and experiences. I don’t know of another medical training field that depends on [team work] like that.”



“We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other … carry each other …”
- lyrics from “One” by U2


As early as orientation, the second-year PA students learned the significance of working together as a team toward a goal.

Before classes began on Aug. 27, the class chose a line from the classic U2 song “One” as its motto - “We get to carry each other.” The choice solidifies the idea that the program won’t become stronger because of individual efforts.

“In medical school, there’s a lot of competition to get residence slots. Here, it’s not like that,” said Laura Gerstner, the program’s clinical coordinator and a certified physician assistant. “Our goal is for all 40 of these students to get through and learn the information they need to treat patients. Right now, they don’t realize the stress that will come into play later on this year and how that stress can break a class apart. That’s why the team building is important.”

Physician assistants are trained and licensed to practice medicine, but their careers differ from that of a DO or an MD in that they’re required to practice under the supervision of an assistant. The demand for PAs is great, and CNN recently ranked “physician assistant” as the second-highest ranked job on their list of “100 Best Jobs in America.”

But why the emphasis on teamwork?

“It’s a very competitive field to get into,” Johnson said. “But once you’re in [a PA program], there’s very little competition.”

Johnson said a student’s grades are important when it comes to applying for the program. The average GPA of a PA student at Campbell is 3.36. The average age is 26, and the average number of hours of health care experience is 4,569.

But once they’re in, all that matters is the end goal, according to Johnson.

“We don’t hold in high regard a student’s excellent grades,” she said. “If you pass, you pass. There’s no time to dwell on it. Competition does not mean success in this program.”

Gerstner said there are hospitals and clinics already looking at the first class.

“They’re waiting for these 15 months to end,” she said. “Part of it is Campbell’s reputation. About once or twice a month, I get calls from sites wanting students. Or they’ll call our admissions office. It’s a good problem for us to have, and I can only see that demand growing once these students get out there on rotations and show what they can do. These rotations are basically job interviews.”


“One of our first reading assignments had a quote that really spoke to me, ‘To cure sometimes, to alleviate often, to comfort always’ – that is why you are here. After all the sweat and tears, we will have a career path before us that will allow us to make a difference in the lives of other individuals.”
- Brittany Lowry, student from Year 1 in a letter to this year’s class


Lowry and the Class of 2013 have embarked on a series of 11 five-week job interviews.

Their second year began on Aug. 27 with Year 2 orientation, and that actual rotations will begin Sept. 3.

Every five weeks, they will practice at a different location studying a different field of medicine. Sites include Wake Med in Raleigh, Harnett Health System in Lillington, New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington and more scattered all over the state.

After rotations are complete, the 12th project will be a senior research project. The program ends with a three-week summit of evaluation, which is a combination of testing, professional seminars and a board review course. After graduation, students will face the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam.

“Once you pass that, you can apply for licensure in any state,” Gerstner said.

There’s still a long road ahead for Lowry and her classmates, but getting through Year 1 was no easy task, she said.

“PA school will always be challenging because of the vast amount of information that is presented in a single year,” she said. “There was a lot of self study simply because it is impossible to cover all the information during lecture.”

In the “Buddy Letter” she wrote to the new class, Lowry’s advice was to let go of the competitive instinct and focus on the patient more than grades or textbooks.

“Do not simply memorize a list,” she wrote. “You will not be treating a robot; you will be treating a human being, and every case is different.”

She said her overall assessment of Campbell’s new program after a year was just as she expected - Campbell lived up to its reputation of having solid post-graduate programs.

“I think the greatest advantage of being in a new program was the genuine investment each of the faculty made in each student,” she said. “They really want us to succeed. Not that other programs don’t feel this way, but we consistently have the unwavering support of all of our faculty, which was a lifesaver for me during this difficult year.”


“It’s interesting how the personalities of students dictate how the learning evolves. I don’t know that we’ll know exactly until we get to know each other and learn how their learning styles and preferences are.”
Betty Lynne Johnson, PA-C, on teaching the new class of PA students


Like any new program, the first year for Campbell’s PA faculty and staff wasn’t without its road bumps.

“There are things that need to be improved,” Johnson said. “But our students from last year were helpful in identifying some of the areas that need improvement.”

Sawyer was working in California when she met Brian Burt, a physician assistant who was a classmate of Gerstner’s at George Washington University. Burt told Sawyer about Campbell’s new program, and despite not having ever heard of Buies Creek or Campbell, Sawyer was intrigued.

“I wanted to get back into medicine, so at the time, I started volunteering at a medical clinic,” said Sawyer, a biological science major as an undergrad. “I did some research on Campbell and really liked it … I was drawn to the small class sizes, the collaborative environment and the supportive community.”

Chaney was fresh out of the military when he started looking into PA programs. Like Sawyer, he wanted to restart his career in the medical field, and he began looking into programs throughout the region.

“I applied to other schools, but Campbell was always my first choice,” he said. “The whole idea of being part of a team and having a supportive faculty, that’s what really sold me. When you get into something like PA school where there’s a lot of pressure, if you’re not part of a good team and if you’re not working together, the wheels can come off.”

Both Sawyer and Chaney know a lot will be thrown at them for the next year. But they say they’re up to the challenge. And both are taking the advice of the class before them.

“We’re working together for one goal … one objective,” Chaney said. “That’s where the motto comes in. We get to carry each other.”

Story by Billy Liggett, University Communications

Photo by Andrea Pratt, College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences

Pictured: Creating their own linked-in network, the incoming PA class of 2014 completes a team building activity during orientation to discover each other’s strengths.