Expert Insights from Program Leaders
July 10, 2021
Episode 2: The 3 Presidents for USCPA

We speak with 3 students leaders from the USC PA Program about the experiences of being an applicant.


In PA education the graduate classes will often elect a leader and having strong leaders co-navigate the challenges of PA education is a definite plus as a program director. Having the benefit when facing a once in a lifetime pandemic, digital education, and systemic racism in our world is priceless. We are delighted to interview the three presidents for the Class of 2021, 2022, and 2023. Renee Lee, Heidi Amundsen, and Taylor Lé who will share their thoughts about the pre-PA journey with some tips and tricks for applicants.

The purpose of this podcast is to provide news and information on the PA profession and is for informational purposes only. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and guests and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policy of the University of Arizona.

Transcript

Unknown Speaker  0:09  
Welcome to this episode of the PA path podcast. I'm your host, Kevin Lohenry. And we're glad you could join us as we seek to better understand the PA profession.

Unknown Speaker  0:25  
Thank you for joining us today,

Unknown Speaker  0:26  
I'm excited to introduce three student leaders who have led their respective classes here at our program. These leaders have shown exceptional skills in their elected roles. I thought they could provide great insights into their own experiences as pre pa applicants. And as students through these tumultuous times. I have grown to admire all three as we've co navigated the pandemic distance education and the systemic racism that has come to the forefront in our country over the murder of George Floyd. Amada arbory. And Brianna Taylor to name a few and to the violence against Asian Americans this past year. In my 20 years of PA education, I have never seen a more challenging year for students or for our country. Yet these leaders have navigated these challenges with grace and compassion. Renee Lee is a recent graduate of the Keck School of Medicine USEPA program, class of 2021. She is originally from Houston, Texas, and now calls California home as she continues her professional journey as an emergency medicine Fellow at the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. She is passionate about diversity, preventive medicine and improving healthcare accessibility, especially for underserved communities. And we want to acknowledge that she is now a nationally certified physician assistant. Heidi Amundsen grew up in San Diego, California and completed her undergraduate studies at San Diego State University, where she received her bachelor's degree in International Security and conflict resolution with a minor in Islamic and Arabic studies. It is currently in her final year in our program. She has had the honor of serving as class president throughout the duration of her tenure and the privilege of serving one year on the executive board for the interdisciplinary student run clinic at the Keck School of Medicine. And finally, Taylor lei grew up in Huntington Beach, California and obtained a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Riverside. She volunteered in API and pre Health Student mentorship programs, and a multitude of community service opportunities, and was presented the Margie LEUs Wyman Humanitarian of the Year Award by UCR. For her contributions to the student and Riverside communities. During her first year of PA school, she was appointed as a student representative of the justice through equity, diversity, inclusion, wellness and social transformation committee, otherwise known as Jedi West, where she guides senior faculty and staff representatives on ally ship and bystander training. So thank you so much for joining us. It's wonderful to have you here.

Unknown Speaker  2:58  
Yeah, thank you for having having your stuff.

Unknown Speaker  3:00  
Great to be here.

Unknown Speaker  3:01  
Awesome. Well, let's start with Rene because Renee is of course, a PAC now, congratulations, Renee on your success, why don't you tell us a little bit about your journey to coming to PA school and maybe let the audience know of any the challenges you might have experienced in that process?

Unknown Speaker  3:19  
Sure. I'm going to give you the abridged version, because I've had quite a journey to the PA profession, or so I believe. But I basically was a biology major in undergrad. I'm originally from Houston, Texas. And at the time, I had really never heard of the PA profession. I knew I wanted to do something in health care. But I wasn't sure exactly what. And as soon as I graduated from undergrad in Texas, I moved to Miami and got a master's in biomedical science, partly because I wanted to improve my academics, and also to buy some time to figure out what I wanted to do. And throughout that process, I think I felt a bit burnt out from academics and needed a break. And so I thought I had this grand idea of teaching high school biology thinking that that would be some time off. But I was deeply humbled and quickly learned that teaching is not a break by any means. But it's really an art and not for the faint of heart. And so what what started off to be one year or what was only meant to be one year of teaching turned into three. And at that point, I really had to reassess whether I was just pursuing medicine because I didn't know anything else to pursue other than medicine or if it was something that I was really passionate about. And I think at the three year mark after teaching, I quickly realized that medicine was something that I wanted to pursue that it wasn't just the idea of medicine that I really loved. But I really enjoyed working with The patient's patient education. And so I had this conversation with a friend. And she asked me what it was that I was looking for in a career in medicine. And I told her, I wanted to be able to diagnose, treat and prescribe all the while forming relationships with patients, she mentioned, and she was actually a medical student at the time, she then asked me, Why don't you consider the PA profession. And I quickly started exploring where the P Professional was about and moved back to Texas, and shadowed my first PA, in internal medicine. And I think that kind of kick started my journey. I ended up applying, I guess, three cycles, and in total of maybe 13 programs, and ended up at the best program at USC.

Unknown Speaker  5:55  
That's great. That's really interesting, because your story is not all too unfamiliar. And that, you know, it is often that students have to reapply through a couple cycles. So can you tell us a little bit about that challenge mentally for you, and how you kind of assessed each cycle how to improve your application?

Unknown Speaker  6:14  
Sure. So I, when researching of applying to PA programs, I quickly realized that there's not a standard prerequisites for all PA programs across the board, like medical schools or a lot of nursing programs. At times I realized, one school might require one extra class versus the other. And that, to be honest, was very challenging, because I think a lot of us can agree that your chances of getting into the program increases based on possibly the number of programs that you apply to. And I felt like it was challenging to figure out what programs that I can apply to based on whatever prerequisites I had, and what additional classes that I wanted to take in order to broaden that scope of or the ability to be able to apply to more programs. And so, you know, you have to think about expenses, additional costs, for taking those extra classes. And then on top of that, figuring out how to acquire the direct patient care hours, you know, applying or signing up to become a CNA, you have it's cost a couple $100, if not 1000s, to be able to get certification. And so I remember just applying to various places to be a medical assistant without having medical assistant certification, or CNA certification, I got lots of rejections, probably about five or six months worth of rejections. And I ended up working as a patient care assistant at a local hospital in the emergency room without really having to have any certification, which was a blessing in disguise. Because through that I was able to acquire, acquire the direct patient care. I think the other challenges is, apart from a great personal like having a good personal statement, having the volunteer experiences trying to figure out ways that your application will stand out among 1000s of applicants, applicants, and then the interview process of flying to different places. Really, sometimes a short notice. I think those are all different challenges. In terms of applying each year. I think that's why I ended up applying three times because each time it wasn't 10 or 15. It was like maybe five or six. And as I stated before, it was a total about 13 programs. And in my last cycle I applied to four, which included USC.

Unknown Speaker  8:48  
Heidi, how about you? What what has been the journey from your experience to get into PA school? And how is it similar or different from Rene's

Unknown Speaker  8:56  
Hello? Well, yeah, I guess my journey is somewhat similar to Rene. And I guess in some circles, we would be considered non traditional students. You can hear the air quotes in my voice, but I'm doing them in real life. And I guess it's due to my undergraduate degree, my age, my work and life experience. But I want to phase that term out and retire it, not only because I think that there's somewhat of a negative connotation to it, but because I think there's a lot more of us. So what even is traditional anymore, so I'm just going to say that I took somewhat of a long route or the scenic route, the equivalent of taking the one from the coast from Oregon all the way down to San Diego. I studied International Security and conflict resolution, focusing on the Middle East as an undergraduate student. And my path was geared towards working for nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits considering taking the Foreign Service exam and going that route. And, you know, you'd think that coming from a to physician household that my path to medicine would have been somewhere with linear and obvious, but I really tried to as best as I could to stay away from that, and hence my interest in those other things. And it was only after working in that arena for a while, realizing that I wanted to do something a little bit more hands on, you know, it was an undergraduate degree what I was doing, which was a lot of grant writing, and research and policy. And I was getting to see some of the cooler hands on things on the ground, particularly with the program working in Afghanistan, they were doing community health and women's health, and I thought, how can I do that? So that kind of got me to thinking about health care. And given my age and my undergraduate degree at the time, I kind of tried to explore Well, what do I qualify for, which wasn't a whole lot. So I started to doing all the different kinds of exploring sounds like Rene did, as well, I looked into physical therapy, and then I thought RN for a while, and then I thought, doing a Masters entry program in nursing that Ben, and I didn't even learn what a PA was until I was about 26, or 27. And I had a really incredible mentor who is a physical therapist and a PA, who said, hey, you know, I think given your interest in what you'd like to do, you might want to choose pa over over anything else. So thus, began the long journey of picking and choosing classes that were needed for the wide variety of programs and spreadsheets upon spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of what's required versus what I've taken versus what's possible to take. Budgeting concerns the whole nine yards, and got in got in here. So that was exciting.

Unknown Speaker  11:40  
So so it sounds like for the two of you. It definitely sounds like it's an expensive proposition to to apply to PA school. And it's really obtuse in terms of figuring out how to navigate the various schools because we're all so different in terms of our prerequisites, there might be some commonalities, but ultimately, it sounds like you both had to really be strategic in figuring out who do I apply to first? And then if I don't get in, then I can emmos broaden my horizons. Yeah, I would say so I think

Unknown Speaker  12:10  
it's increasingly it's become increasingly competitive to apply to PA school. So I can't imagine how much more competitive it is now compared to when I applied three years ago, or five years ago. But I really think that the differences in prerequisites per program adds to the challenges, especially when it comes to expenses. And being wise about where you want to apply not like medical school or nursing school, where you kind of have a set standard of prerequisite classes and can apply to 20 schools and hope that you get into three or four to have choices. You really, at least for me what Heidi was saying, we really had to pick and choose based on what we already had and what we can kind of add to.

Unknown Speaker  12:57  
And don't forget about the time limits on some of those courses to write. Like we have a 10 year program cut off and other programs have five to seven years depending on the course so that if you are applying over multiple cycles isn't yet another factor that you consider moving from year to year.

Unknown Speaker  13:15  
That's a really good point. And given your your perspective on the diversity of applicants in terms of age, and experience that you bring as a a, again, air quote, non traditional pa applicant, that 10 year mark or five year mark or seven year mark really does apply to quite a bit because many of you have been through undergrad at a more traditional age and then paste a different career. And then, you know, found the light, so to speak. Taylor, once you tell us a little bit about your journey to

Unknown Speaker  13:44  
Yeah, of course. So I think my journey was a little bit different than Renee and Heidi's. When I did my undergraduate I did a degree in biochemistry. I knew that I wanted to do something in the health care field, but I wasn't sure what and at the time, I had volunteered at Riverside free clinic and it was just this very robust clinic that provided medical, dental, mental health, pharmaceutical and psychiatric services to the underserved population of that area. So I was exposed to a lot of different health professions in that setting. And out of all the different health professionals students, I felt that medicine was the best fit for me in regards to the patient provider interaction. I knew I wanted to continue in health care and you know, working on improving equitable access for the same populations. And in order to do that and prepare myself for medical school, I decided to pick up a preclinical job on the side while I was studying for my MCAT so I worked at a local regional, a local county hospital Where I was an emergency department scribe, I would be paired with any one of the providers. So this would include PDAs, and PS physicians, both attendings and residents, in this really busy setting, and it was actually when I was there that I would have a lot more time with the PA and NPS. And it made me realize a lot that their lifestyle and their philosophy, when working with patients is essentially the same as physicians and for me the part about wanting to help others, and increasing improving access and considering how short of a time it is to complete PA school versus the other types of schooling. As well as looking at the work life balance for a PA versus the other professions as well, I just felt that Pa was the best career choice for me. So when I made that decision, I did have a lot of the prerequisites already done just because I had a biochemistry major. And I did also have a similar process of trying to select my schools, as Renee and Heidi with, you know, making all these spreadsheets looking at what courses I didn't have and what courses I did have. And I will also say that scribing is not I wouldn't say it's a universally accepted pre clinical experience for a lot of PA programs. So that also decided what schools I could apply to and didn't, because I didn't want to add another type of professional or pre clinical experience. So that's how I ended up here today

Unknown Speaker  16:43  
at USC.

Unknown Speaker  16:45  
So this next question, I'm really curious. So you're talking about shadowing PA and how difficult that can be. And I think it's a really difficult part for applicants in terms of identifying PA is that they can seek that opportunity from. And I'm curious how you kind of navigated that. And if you have any tips or tricks to that process.

Unknown Speaker  17:04  
I guess, for me, I did not know a single pa when I was looking to pursue applying to PA schools. So I moved back to Houston, Texas, and just started searching the internet, or PDAs, in general or practicing PDAs. And really had a lot of difficulty finding anyone that I could shadow, especially with pays in the hospital where you had to acquire some kind of privilege or access with some kind, of course of some sort, or there's a lot of red tape to be able to shadow in the hospital. And then I was I really had a lot of couple finding someone in clinics as well. But my mom is a nurse has been practicing for over 30 years. And she happened to have a connection where I was able to shadow a PA but I really do feel like had I not had that connection, it would have been really, really difficult. And I see that challenge. Even now, when I being part of a lot of Facebook groups and forums, that there are a lot of pre pa applicants who are looking for any type of shadowing opportunity. And I think that's part of maybe a discriminatory admissions process, if you will, leveraging family and social ties in order to have that kind of access.

Unknown Speaker  18:30  
So essentially, those who come from connected families that know doctors and nurses and PDAs have a distinct advantage over those that come from first generation college families where that may not be this the case.

Unknown Speaker  18:47  
Definitely, I think there is definitely a gap between people who have access or social ties within either their family or friends who are within the medical field versus not. And I think that plays a huge role and an advantage as to the opportunity that you have in order to become a stronger applicant.

Unknown Speaker  19:10  
Yeah, and it and Taylor so you both nodding your head, do you want to provide insights on that as well? Sure.

Unknown Speaker  19:16  
I also like would like to point out that those shadowing hours can't be paid right? So again, it's just another layer of privilege that one has to take time away from probably already likely a minimum wage entry level Healthcare Job that we have to get healthcare hours to go and you know, Shadow these providers for free. And yes, privilege and access go hand in hand. I can hands down say that personal connections were what got me my healthcare experience jobs. Two of the three, however, didn't work so much for shadowing. That was that was even a challenge for me. And I ended up going through a community college or a health, a Health Occupation center that was doing licensing programs for like Ma's and LV ns. And they had a relationship with Kaiser where for $50, you could pay to enroll in this course. And they would guarantee you 50 hours of shadowing a PA

Unknown Speaker  20:12  
at Kaiser Taylor, how about you How was your shadowing experiences and what kind of helped you obtain what you needed to do to get into PA school.

Unknown Speaker  20:23  
Unfortunately, I'm I come from the other end of what was described. And essentially, I have a family friend who's a physician who had a PA or who was friends with a PA at a burn clinic. And she was able to, I was able to shadow her through that. But even with that connection, there were so many layers of complicated forms and trainings, I had to go through from the hospitals and ensure that I wasn't breaking any rules, I was compliant with HIPAA. But what I was thinking in regards to my commentary about shadowing PDAs. Hopefully, they're RPAS that listen to this, but remembering how difficult it was to get that shadowing opportunity, even though it was through a family friend, and things like that, I just know that I want to pay it forward. And remember that difficulty of getting the opportunity. And wherever I end up practicing, try to try my best to establish some sort of policy or ability for, you know, potential applicants or prospective PA students to try to shadow myself because there are so many of us out there. And I think that students just don't, it's, it's really hard to make that connection, if you don't know someone. And on top of that, too. Whenever I talk to a PA in a hospital, they're usually so willing and so helpful, and wanting to give their contact information to those prospective students. Like please let me know if there's any way I can help with reviewing your application, providing perspective about interviews, things like that. And just putting yourself back in the shoes of applying maybe that's what we need our current professionals to do in order to open those doors.

Unknown Speaker  22:21  
Yeah, man, I think all three of you have given the educators that hopefully will be listening, something to think about related to that difficulty. Historically, Pa educators want to ensure that the PA students taking seats in their programs have some experience watching PDAs in action, so they understand what the role is and are necessarily disenfranchised once they begin school. And so the argument has always been the CPAs that have had the chance to PA applicants who have had the chance to shadow have a much better sense of what they're getting themselves into. But, you know, that was probably a really good argument back when there was only 20,000 PhDs in the United States. And now with 135,000 Plus, I think a lot of us have CPAs as part of our own health care team alongside of them when we're working as scribes and other health care professionals. And maybe it's an argument that needs to be reconsidered.

Unknown Speaker  23:17  
Here's an out of the box idea. Maybe pa can put together a little video that would supplant the information that one would acquire shadowing a PA, and have applicants attest to watching this video, you know, kind of like an in service training, like one would have to do when you work for large hospital system every year, sexual harassment training, you know, here's your role of the PA training, and that would be free and then would equalize the playing field.

Unknown Speaker  23:47  
That's fantastic. Yeah, that is fantastic. Thank you. One of my other thoughts was, if you had to give advice to applicants, what are the top one, two or three things that you look at, that helped you solidify your decision for the program that you chose?

Unknown Speaker  24:03  
Yeah, I wanted a three year program, a two year program just wasn't quite aligned with what I knew my learning style to be. Number two is I looked at the amount of time the program had been in place and had a continuing accreditation, I found that I could probably correlate that with stability amongst faculty members that they knew how to teach the curriculum, they had rotation sites, they knew what they were doing. And number three, it was focused on the program. So I know that some programs have a focus in pediatrics or surgery or research. And I liked that our program was focused on primary care and was serving the underserved. So it really checked off all three boxes pretty nicely.

Unknown Speaker  24:47  
Thank you very much Renee or tailor any thoughts for you?

Unknown Speaker  24:50  
Yeah, I don't mind speaking. So the number one priority I would say for me when I was looking at schools was the mission statement. I feel that US See fit what I was looking for, because I really want to continue working with the underserved and vulnerable populations. And USC definitely has shown so many actions and has established so many different organizations that can help support the community around Los Angeles. Another priority that I would say as well, that I looked at was the location, not in the sense of I want a place with good weather or things like that, but more so if I do clinical rotations in this area, am I going to get a good diverse experience of different types, different samples of patient populations that will make me feel that I have a good foundation under my belt? I'm not going to say that after PA school that I'll feel like I've seen it all or anything, but those were probably the top two things for me.

Unknown Speaker  25:56  
And last but not least, Renee. Yeah, so.

Unknown Speaker  25:58  
So I guess for me, one thing was adherence to the mission of the program. So it was important for me to be at a program that was diverse. And while I believe that our program can always improve, I felt that both within not only my class, or the applicants that were present for interviews, there was a diverse group of students that were applying for the P program in emphasis, as both Heidi and Taylor stated of a commitment to improving health access to underserved communities. And at the time when I was interviewing, thank you, Dr. Henry were spoke about launching a st med component to the program or at USC. And that was a really big hook for me. And a big reason why I also ended up at USC as well. Another thing that was important for me is the culture, I wanted to be at a place where the faculty and staff look not only looked like but genuinely enjoyed being there, not only as a professor or as a clinical educator, but that the environment itself was just a healthy environment. In general, for both students and for faculty and staff. I think one of the things that really stuck out to me when I was at the interview for USC was to see the number, the large number of alumni that came back to serve as as interviewers for the program. And I think that really made a big impression on me that told me that not only were people graduating from the pay per USEPA program, but also they were paying it forward and giving back and they genuinely enjoyed having been at USC and therefore wanted to serve by whether it might be as a mentor or as a preceptor, or, like I said, by interviewing potential applicants or potential PA students. And then also third, the long standing reputation of the program was also important that it wasn't super new. And that's not to say that, especially with a lot of new programs coming about now more than ever, I just wanted to be at a place that was established that had good clinical rotations that wasn't trialing or, I guess, using us as guinea pigs, if you will. That's the way to put it in terms of you know, whether it was curriculum or whatnot in and all that to say, I feel like our program does a really great job of taking feedback, and improving as needed or as best as they could by really making sure that they hear or giving us an assurance that they are hearing what we have to say in regards to improving the program better. But I more so than that. It's just having been established for a long time. I think those three things were really, really important to me.

Unknown Speaker  28:44  
Yeah, definitely. Thank you, Renee, Heidi and Taylor, thank you so much for joining us today. It has been a real pleasure having you on the podcast. And I think your insights are really important to applicants to PA students and also to PA educators to help us understand how to best support students. So thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You're welcome. Thanks

Unknown Speaker  29:05  
for having us.

Unknown Speaker  29:07  
What a privilege it is to work with leaders like Brene, Heidi and Taylor, who have not only shown great compassion and their roles, but they have led their peers or what is arguably the toughest period in history for the generation. Working with the next generation of PhDs is without a doubt one of the best parts of my job. Join us next time as we meet Dr. Mary Jo Bondi, Chief Executive Officer of the physician assistant Education Association, who will share her story of her path to becoming the first PA to leave the only organization that represents pa educational programs. Until next time, I wish you success with whatever path you are walking in life. And thank you for joining us. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and guests and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Southern California.

 

Renee Lee, MPAP, PA-C Profile Photo

Renee Lee, MPAP, PA-C

PA Resident

enee Lee is a recent graduate of the Keck School of Medicine of USC PA program, class of 2021. She is originally from Houston, TX and now calls California home as she continues her professional journey as an ER fellow at Arrowhead Emergency medicine fellowship. ( alternative: as she continues her professional journey at an ER fellowship program in southern California.) She is passionate about diversity, preventative medicine, and improving health care accessibility, especially for the underserved community. In her free time, you will find Renee exploring coffee shops, new food spots, and embracing the outdoors any chance she gets.

Heidi Amundsen Profile Photo

Heidi Amundsen

President, Class of 2022

Heidi grew up in San Diego, CA and completed her undergraduate studies at San Diego State University where she received her Bachelor’s degree in International Security and Conflict Resolution, with a minor in Islamic and Arabic Studies.

During the years between her undergraduate and graduate studies, Heidi spent her time working for various non-profit/non-governmental organizations, taking PA school pre requisite classes, getting entry-level health care experience, and training for cycling and triathlon events like she was a professional athlete. She would like it noted that she was definitely NOT a professional athlete, just an amateur with delusions of grandeur and a penchant for grueling training rides.

Heidi is currently in her final year at USC’s KSOM Primary Care PA Program. She has had the honor of serving as Class President throughout the duration of her tenure, and the privilege of serving one year on the Executive Board for the interdisciplinary Student Run Clinic. She is class-renowned for asking clarifying questions about assignment due dates and for creating MailChimp emails that are incredibly visually appealing but only moderately helpful.

She spends her very limited free time finding the optimal setting for perfectly toasted Pop Tarts, studying LA traffic patterns, and wandering the gardens at the Huntington Library.

Taylor Lé Profile Photo

Taylor Lé

President, Class of 2023

Taylor Le grew up in Huntington Beach California, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from University of California, Riverside. She volunteered in AAPI and pre-health student mentorship programs and community service involvements and was presented the Marguleas/Weiman Humanitarian of the Year Commencement Award by UCR for her contributions to the student and Riverside communities. During her first year of PA school (at USC), Taylor was appointed as a student representative of the Justice through Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Wellness and Social Transformation (JEDI-WEST) committee to guide senior faculty and staff representatives on allyship and bystander training opportunities for students. As class president, Taylor has been supporting her class to navigate through the normal rigors of PA school, as well as the additional challenges brought forth with didactic education during the COVID-19 pandemic. In her free time, Taylor enjoys spending time cooking Vietnamese dishes, eating breakfast with her dad, watching a good drama series, and playing tennis.