PA white coat selfie

Ceremonies and celebrations for SIU’s PA graduates, new learners

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Students and staff in the Physician Assistant Program experienced a whirlwind of activities and rites of passage during graduation week 2023. 

Third-year physician assistant students gathered at the SIU Medicine building in Carbondale on July 24 for their certifying exams. These tests marked the culmination of their education, qualifying them to practice in the United States. SIU's PA program boasts a remarkable 100% pass rate for the board exam, a tradition the class of 2023 proudly upheld. 

Masters scholars symposiumLater in the week, students, faculty and staff hosted the PA master’s symposium, where scholars in the class presented their final clinical research projects in poster displays and oral presentations. The exhibit showcased research in pediatrics, undiagnosed chronic illnesses and advancing care in orthopedics and cancer. In addition, select works from the master’s-level research will be published in the SIU Journal of Medical Science Scholarly Works, the school’s new open-access, peer-reviewed journal. The recognition provides a competitive edge for these individuals as they move forward in their careers.

Students organized a welcome dinner for the doctoral graduates on Friday, July 27. The SIU Doctor of Medical Science program is all online, so many of its graduates had not met in person until that evening. They found common elements in conversations: shared challenges to balance studies, work and family; stories of promotions, professional achievements and new opportunities directly attributed to their terminal degree; and joy at the journey’s end. 

On July 29, the PA White Coat Ceremony was held at the SIU Student Center. A crowd of 800 family members, friends, faculty, staff and students gathered both in-person and virtually to view the proceedings. During the event, the graduating class of 2023 shared the stage with the incoming class of 2025. Both groups were excited and eager to embark on the next phase of their lives. 

Dr. Donald Diemer, director of the Physician Assistant Program, and Dr. Janet Albers, chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, presided over the ceremony, conferring certificates and awards. Forty newly minted physician assistants received accolades and apparel to signify their hard-won graduate status. 

BaurIn her remarks, class of 2023 president Liaht Baur reminded everyone of the shared trials, forged bonds and overarching goal. “May we always see the patient in front of us, beyond the charts, the notes and the computer screen. And always feel the awe, the tremendous privilege it is to study medicine and apply our skills for the good of our communities,” she said.

Six of the graduates were inducted into the national PA honor society Pi Alpha, denoting high standards of character and conduct. The honorees were Mina Hanalla, Paige Hocking, Abigail Jolley, Rachel Kitzmann, Michael Marino and Harshi Perera.

Jonathan Sacks received the Charmaine Porter Award, honoring the memory of a PA staff member who passed in 2018. The award recognizes the student with the most improved PACKRAT scores from year one to year three.

The students honored Dr. Daniel Hagerman as the PA Teacher of the Year. L. Kristen Schloeman, faculty and current DMSc student, earned the PA Best Problem-Based Learning Facilitator Award. Paula McNeill was awarded the PA Staff Member of the Year for her dedication to education support and coordination.

The class of 2023 celebrated 10 Preceptors of the Year – one for each hub site in the SIU School of Medicine system. They included Gabe Martin, DMSc, PA-C, Carbondale; Amelia Elliot, PA-C, Decatur; Erin Miller, PA-C, Champaign; Bernadette Huston, APRN, ACNS-BC, Cape Girardeau; Luis De Venecia, MD, Olney; Zach McKenty, DMSc, PA-C, Belleville; Andrew Bryant, PA-C, Peoria; Halley Anderson, DO, Quincy; Angela Younker, APRN, CNP, Springfield; and Keith Ballinger, DMSc, PA-C, Mattoon. Notably, Martin, McKenty and Ballinger are all graduates of the inaugural SIU Doctor of Medical Science cohort, exemplifying the benefits of continuing education. 

Finally, Dr. Laurie Ryznyk, a founding member and the associate director of the SIU PA program, was honored for her 29 years of dedicated service. Her invaluable contributions were recognized with an award and a standing ovation. 

The DMSc doctoral hooding ceremony took place later that day. The students and their families hailed from across the United State. Six individuals were from Illinois, including SIU Family and Community Medicine’s Dr. Colleen Kelly and Dr. Theresa Oakley. Dr. Joeli Diemer and Dr. Laurie Ryznyk also serve as practicing PAs for FCM and as faculty members in the PA program. 

Eight of the graduates also completed the PA master's program, and two hold three degrees from Southern Illinois University. Four graduates are US Military veterans. Among the 29 students, 20 were able to attend the ceremony in person, while the remaining nine were honored via livestream. 

Dr. Jacob Ribbing underscored the significance of the occasion in his welcoming speech, covering the history of doctoral degrees and why the SIU DMSc is so prestigious. 

Speaking on behalf of the class, Dr. Matthew McQuillan from Rutgers State University in New Jersey, shared his perspective on the importance of the degree and his personal journey. He encouraged others “to provide compassionate care, leadership, advocacy, and education to their communities and the profession, with an emphasis on underserved populations.”

Drs. Terrill, Albers, Ribbing, and Diemer conducted the reading of names, diploma presentations and hooding. Amid the emotional moments, Dr. Diemer hooded both his daughter, Dr. Joeli Diemer, and long-time friend and colleague Dr. Laurie Ryznyk. 

DMSc Excellence in Scholarship Awards were presented to four graduates for outstanding research: Dr. Matthew McQuillan, Dr. Joshua Reeves, Dr. Andrew Roush and Dr. James Van Rhee. Dr. Allison Terry was honored with the DMsc Excellence in PA Advocacy and Leadership Award. Dr. Chelsea Treece received the crowning accolade of the evening, the 2023 DMSc Faculty of the Year Award.

As the graduates embark upon the next phases of their medical careers, they are prepared to be a positive force on the health of the communities they serve, through patient care, advocacy and scholarly pursuits. Their success can impact populations for generations.

View photos from the White Coat Ceremony and DMSc graduation on SIU's Canto website.

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