First in Their Field

By Jenny Barnett, December 11, 2023
Inaugural Physician Assistant program cohort graduates from IC.

It was an afternoon of firsts at Ithaca College on Saturday, December 9, as an enthusiastic crowd of faculty, staff, family, friends, alumni, and fellow students celebrated the graduation of IC’s first cohort of physician assistants at the traditional Long White Coat ceremony, which signifies the transition of learner to professional in the medical community.

Backstage before the ceremony, where students lined up clutching their white coats, there was an air of excitement—and immense collegiality. The tight-knit group of learners had supported each other throughout the intense schedule of classes and rotations, and their strong bonds and mutual respect were very much in evidence.

Several were the first in their family to join the medical profession. Maritza Sierra was excited to be returning to her hometown of Stony Brook to go into neurosurgery at Stony Brook University Hospital.

“You are recognized not only for your commitment to being a healthcare provider, but also for your commitment to being leaders locally, nationally, and globally.”

President La Jerne Terry Cornish

I feel honored to be a part of this IC experience,” Sierra said. “We trusted in the faculty. They had tremendous resumes and backgrounds, and it was just a great experience.”

“You will forever be remembered as the inaugural cohort of the Ithaca College Physician Assistant Studies program,” President La Jerne Terry Cornish told the graduates. “You are recognized not only for your commitment to being a healthcare provider, but also for your commitment to being leaders locally, nationally, and globally. During a global pandemic, and at an inflection point in public health, you answered the call, not just of your communities, but of your nation and our world.”

Susan with student

Program director Dr. Susan Salahshor with student Nour Safa, the winner of the Program Director Award. (Photo by Simon Wheeler)

Announced in Spring 2021, the 27-month program leading to a master of science degree in Physician Assistant Studies welcomed its first learners the following September. Jordan Beckley ’19, who had nearly 50 family members in attendance at the ceremony, had heard about the PA program while she was an undergraduate health science major. “I actually took a gap year to be able to apply for this program,” she said. “It’s been a great opportunity.”

“I hope that you will remember your first day in the program, not just out of nostalgia for this special place, but as a reminder of what inspired you to take this journey,” said Cornish. “On difficult days, remembering the ‘why’ behind your pursuit and your calling will sustain you. Being able to bring yourself back to that foundation, to tap into whatever it is that brought you to this new role should help restore your strength and your passion.”

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Melanie Stein offered a challenge to the graduates. “My challenge to you today, as you prepare to go out into the world as a healthcare professional, is to remain committed to lifelong learning, to always improving your skills and your expertise. To serve your patients well in this ever-evolving world you will need to always cultivate that drive to acquire new knowledge and your own openness to change.”

Keynote speaker Brian Palm, an emergency medicine PA based in rural north Georgia, acknowledged the achievements of the class in completing the rigorous program.

This has been one of, if not the hardest, thing you've ever done in your life. Each of you has earned the title of physician assistant and I'm proud to call you colleagues.”

Keynote speaker Brian Palm

This has been one of, if not the hardest, thing you've ever done in your life. And that's a heck of an accomplishment,” he said. “Each of you has earned the title of physician assistant and I'm proud to call you colleagues.”

Servant Leadership Awardee and class speaker Josh Endy spoke proudly of his fellow graduates for representing IC on a national level, conducting influential research, and pioneering community outreach.

“What an honor it is to represent such an exceptional, bold, and influential group of individuals who will all play an integral role in the future of healthcare,” he said. “Tonight we will stand united as a group that forever possesses an experience that was influential in shaping the way we carry out the rest of our lives.”

Before the coating of the class, program director Dr. Susan Salahshor announced the winner of the Program Director Award, Nour Safa, who earned the honor in part for another first, creating a national Muslim Association of PAs.

Speaking at the reception that followed the ceremony, Safa said, “I have been inspired by this program and by Dr. Salahshor’s advocacy and leadership. It inspired me to want to be the best possible leader that I could be for my community, for my family, for my patients.”

Both Cornish and Stein thanked Salahshor, who will be leaving the college at the end of the semester, for her leadership and vision as founding director.

Susan developed this program from scratch—from overseeing the creation of the beautiful space downtown to developing the entire curriculum, to hiring each member of the faculty and staff to bringing in each one of the students who's graduating today,” said Stein. “This college will be forever grateful to Susan.”

After the ceremony concluded, Justin Cerdeña reflected on what he and his classmates accomplished.

“Looking at other PA programs, this is by far the most diverse group of individuals that I've seen,” he said. “And despite that, we've been able to find common ground, learn about each other, and help motivate each other towards this common goal.”