Brenau’s new Physician Assistant Studies program begins first day of classes

Physician Assistant Studies students participate in their first lab.After years of planning and preparation, Brenau University’s new Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program officially launched Monday, Jan. 11, as students began classes in the recently renovated Brenau Downtown Center.

The latest addition to the Ivester College of Health Sciences’ slate of graduate degree offerings features an inaugural cohort of 33 students from all over the country as well as from right here in Georgia. The 28-month program received nearly 500 applications in its first year. Recently, the physician assistant position was named No. 1 on the U.S. News World & Report list of Best Jobs of 2021.

Rosemary Melendez said she always had Brenau in the front of her mind, and it was the first school she applied to when pursuing her undergraduate degree. Though the Athens, Georgia, native ultimately decided to study biology at Georgia Gwinnett College, she said she could not pass up the opportunity to join the new PA program at Brenau.

“Once I received my bachelor’s degree and learned that Brenau was offering my dream career choice, it was a no brainer,” Melendez said. “I just knew I had to apply and try my hardest to get accepted. Brenau believed in me since I was in high school by sending me letters about the program and allowing me to apply for undergrad without a fee, and they believe in me now for my graduate studies. This has always been my dream school.”

For Melendez and her classmates Michael Benfield and Alhana Khobeir, being able to help people in their communities played a big part in choosing the physician assistant field.

Benfield worked as an athletic trainer for the past seven and a half years and was able to get an up-close look at physician assistants in action during that time. In his experience, he saw that physician assistants were able to do more as far as ordering tests and imaging and assisting in surgeries along with spending more time with the patients.

While figuring out where to go, applying to Brenau was an easy decision for Benfield. Although he and his family currently live in Duluth, Georgia, his wife grew up in Gainesville, and he has family in the North Georgia area, including his parents and grandparents.

“I’ve always been told that you have two families,” he said. “One you’re born into and one that you choose. The Northeast Georgia area is a family that I have chosen and they’ve chosen me. I want to be able to give back to this community. The best way that I can figure to do that is to go to Brenau where they’re starting a new program and have a great history in regards to health care professions. I really like what I’ve seen so far. And it gives me an opportunity to give back to the community that’s given to me.”

two Physician Assistant Studies students participate in their first lab.Khobeir, who is from Michigan, chose Brenau due to its proximity to Atlanta and the fact she would not have to deal with the cold weather like she does in her home state.

Khobeir started out with the goal of going to medical school but realized during undergraduate that it wasn’t for her.

“I like variety,” she said. “And medical school couldn’t give me that. I wanted to become a physician assistant because it allowed me the opportunity to be able to work in different fields, if I so chose. It allowed me to be flexible with what I wanted to do. As a doctor, you kind of have to give 150% to one subject matter, whereas for PAs, they get to do anything and everything that they could possibly want to do. PAs take the time, they ask the questions, they build those relationships, and that’s just something that was really important to me.”

Dr. Gale Starich, dean of the Ivester College of Health Sciences and the Sidney O. Smith Jr. Graduate School, is glad that the program has finally been able to take off, even with some modifications. In keeping with Brenau’s culture of prevention, students are required to stay six feet apart and are broken up into smaller groups in certain classrooms.

“I was so gratified to meet the inaugural cohort of our new PA program,” Starich said. “It has taken us 13 years from our initial idea to have this founding cohort seated in their brand new space. Looking at the students bios, I think we can all expect them to be important contributors to the health and well-being of their communities and the profession.”

Brenau President Anne Skleder greeted each of the students before their first class.

“I was delighted to meet some of the newest Brenau students today,” she said. “They’re a brilliant and diverse group, and I’m so glad they decided to continue their education at Brenau. The new physician assistant program will benefit the community as many students are from Georgia, but there are several from out of state who will bring in their experiences. The creation of this program has been a concerted effort from all areas of the university, including overwhelming support from our board of trustees who recognize how important physician assistants are for our community.”

The PA program is years of hard work and the more recent efforts of founding program director Dr. Julie Keena and her team. After joining Brenau in July 2019, Keena went to work getting the curriculum ironed out and faculty hired, but her top priority was getting the program granted provisional accreditation, which happened in October 2020.

Physician Assistant Studies students participate in their first lab with instructorIn the build-out in the Downtown Center, the students will have access to group rooms in order to help with clinical problem-solving and critical thinking. Within the curriculum, students will be trained in mental health first aid, Narcan administration and will be required to complete at least one rotation in a rural or medically underserved community, which Keena says is unlike most other physician assistant programs in the country. In addition, students will be learning through lecture and problem- or case-based activities, simulation and standardized patient experiences and interprofessional education events.

The first day included a lecture on telemedicine, which has been included in the curriculum due to COVID-19, and a tour of the physician assistant area in the Downtown Center.

“Having the students here is so exciting because that’s what we’re all here for,” Keena said. “It’s kind of the culmination of the 18 months that I’ve been here, all of the planning and work we’ve done. We hadn’t met several of the students in person because we did virtual interviews, so it has been fantastic to finally get to meet them.”

The program’s faculty includes five full-time and one part-time members with a combined 170 years of clinical experience and 50 years of academic experience. Some of the faculty include Director of Didactic Education Dr. Neena Xavier, who will be working with students for the first 16 months of the program and taught the very first PA lecture at Brenau; Assistant Program Director Dr. Kyrus Patch, who has over 40 years of experience as a PA and will teach the students their physical assessment skills; and Medical Director Dr. Allen Butts, a retired surgeon in Gainesville, Georgia with longstanding ties in the community.

“Brenau University is excited to finally launch its program in physician assistant studies after many years of planning and preparation,” said Dr. Jim Eck, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The university has attracted a diverse cohort of students, as well as a highly credentialed and experienced faculty. We are ready to offer a program of the highest quality from day one.”