MEDEX Northwest 2020 Graduations: The “Class of COVID-19” Shines

By:   October 19, 2020

In early October 2020, MEDEX Northwest graduated 128 physician assistant students from across four of its campuses. After 27 months of study—both in the classroom and in a variety of clinical settings—these students were as ready for their hard work to be honored and rewarded as any of the over 2700 MEDEX graduates who came before them. Instead of taking their place in front of family and friends to walk across a stage and receive their certificates, however, these 128 PAs-to-be found themselves at home, or at someone’s house, or even at work. Some were alone or sitting with a spouse, others were gathered together with family and friends. All were in front of computer screens and participating in a virtual graduation ceremony.

A mix of MEDEX Tacoma students, families, friends and faculty listen as Program Director Terry Scott concludes the virtual graduation ceremony.

But if the electronic delivery and distanced engagement with this year’s graduation ceremonies were far different from what anyone expected or even hoped for back in June of 2018, the notable accomplishments of these graduates were acknowledged nevertheless. Indeed, for this “Class of COVID-19,” as one speaker identified them, their successes as MEDEX students shown even more brightly for it.

“It’s been one heck of a year,” MEDEX Program Director Terry Scott, MPA, PA-C, DFAAPA observed with certain understatement in his welcoming remarks. “No one could have imagined that we would spend most of 2020 social distancing, wearing face masks and debating the simple realities of science. You have demonstrated tremendous resilience and flexibility in attaining your goal of becoming a physician assistant. Congratulations. It is a well-earned achievement.”

After recognizing the critical support of family and friends, and the tireless efforts of MEDEX faculty and staff, Dr. Paul James, Professor and Chair, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, also gave a nod to the extraordinary circumstances at hand.

“Thank you for the hard work you’ve done over the last two years,” Dr. James said, “during these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted the very fabric of our healthcare systems and society. Throughout this adversity you have demonstrated your professionalism and excellence, and I am personally very proud of all of you.”

Suzanne Allen, MD, MPH, Dean for Academic and Rural Affairs, UW Medicine, recognized a silver lining of sorts in learning and practicing healthcare at this historic moment.

“You’re graduating at a unique time, starting your careers at a unique time,” said Dr. Allen. “But it’s also very exciting. I know for me, because of the pandemic, I’m learning new things, I’m learning new ways to take care of patients who have contracted the coronavirus. I hope for all of you, you will continue to take opportunities throughout your careers to really continue to learn. Find out what’s new, find out what’s going to help you take care of your patients. So that life-long learning component, I hope, really is solidified for you as you enter medicine in this really unique time.”

Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine and Dean of the UW School of Medicine, took this idea a step further:

“If I was to reflect on the obstacles that you have faced, I’m not sure I would want to enumerate them! To complete your education as physician assistants at a time when healthcare is changing faster than it’s ever changed before […] you have overcome enormous obstacles. And I think that will prepare you in a way that perhaps others have not had the opportunity to prepare. By completing your education in such a time of emergency or crisis, that’s a bit like a stress test. You have been stressed, but you have passed, and you have passed now to graduation.”

Congratulations to the 128 graduates of MEDEX Anchorage Class 10, MEDEX Spokane Class 22, MEDEX Tacoma Class 6 and MEDEX Seattle Class 52. You are an inspiration and the reason that MEDEX Northwest carries on.

MEDEX Northwest Anchorage Class 10

Saturday October 3, 2020

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MEDEX Anchorage Campus Director Kari Bernard, PhD, PA-C welcomed the graduating Anchorage students with a mix of historical perspective and honest wonder at their unique accomplishments. After all, their time with MEDEX Anchorage included not only a global pandemic that interrupted and altered the very nature of their clinical rotations, but a 7.1 magnitude earthquake as well, which forced the students from their damaged classroom and interrupted their didactic year exams.

“As the second oldest PA program in the United States, MEDEX is no stranger to celebrating anniversaries,” said Bernard. “In fact, in 2019 we celebrated our 50th year in existence. And this year, MEDEX Anchorage is having its own anniversary, graduating our 10th year of PA students. [But] today, instead of celebrating ten years of graduates, I celebrate this year of graduates. You are the ones who remained engaged when it would have been easier to be apathetic. You held on to your compassion instead of harboring resentment. And you remained determined instead of defeated. Congratulations for crossing the finish line. Now onward.”

Jeff Jessee, Dean of the University of Alaska’s College of Health, echoed Kari Bernard. When an already unique set of students meets a unique set of challenges head-on, suggested Jessee, we are left with a group of students “uniquely qualified to enter the workforce and healthcare sector and provide the services that we need to get through the rest of this pandemic.”

“We knew you were all smart,” continued Jessee. “But what MEDEX has demonstrated through both their admissions process and, as Kari says, the ways in which you have conducted yourselves during this pandemic, you have those other qualities that are so critical to being excellent healthcare providers: your ability to work in teams, your perseverance, your positive attitude, and I am supremely confident that as you get out into the community and start serving people, that you will fill a great need that we have right now.”

“I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you to all the friends, family members, grandmothers, grandfathers, kids, sons, daughters, cousins, mentors, teachers, colleagues … everyone who has been a part of this journey.” So began Andrew Baber in remarks delivered from the edge of a beautiful mountain lake located in southeast Alaska. “Braving the mosquitos,” Baber introduced and presented a video that he produced in his capacity as Class Historian that recognized in each of his classmates the “underlying drive that brought us to medicine.”

Special honors were given to several students from Anchorage Class 10, including the following:

  • John Coombs Leadership Award – Jean Morello
  • Anchorage Underserved Award – Yanet Alicia Medina Chinas
  • Writing Award – Isabel Hakala
  • Spirit of MEDEX Award – The Entire Class
  • Steven Turnipseed PA-C Veterans Award – Robin Lynn Morris

Congratulations to the graduates of Anchorage Class 10!

View the full event recording of the Anchorage graduation ceremony here.


MEDEX Northwest Spokane Class 22

Sunday October 4, 2020

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In her keynote address to the students of Spokane Class 22, Theresa Schimmels, BCHS, PA-C, DFAAPA, a graduate of MEDEX Spokane Class 1, offered practical professional advice based mostly around the idea of time:

  • Take time to listen to your patient. “Every patient tells a story, and they want to be heard. If you can take just a few seconds to let that patient do that, it means the world to them. Don’t forget to be timely, but don’t rush.
  • Take time to be with your family and friends and self. “Make sure that when you leave work, that you leave work at work. Be with your families, spend time with your friends. And do the things you need to do for self-care, to make sure that your mind and body are whole, so that you can be whole for both your patients and your staff.”
  • Take time to get to know your staff. “Get to know the janitor or the housekeeper or the scheduler or the operator or the person in the dining hall that serves your soup or sandwich, the nurses and the aides and the respiratory therapists and the ortho techs, everyone … Knowing who they are, acknowledging them, is one of the first things that you should do in creating a relationship that will help build your career in a positive manner.”

In short? “Our life would be so much better if we would just take a little bit of time,” Schimmels concluded with a smile.

Before his lighthearted introduction of the MEDEX Spokane Class 22 class officers, Class President Annan Sheffield addressed his fellow classmates with a combination of relief and appreciation.

“We did it,” he declared. “Well done. It’s been a journey. It’s been a road full of twists and turns and bumps and some really, really long stop lights. But we made it. We’re at the end. And it’s here at the end that we must not forget who we are, where we came from, and more importantly who we were meant to be as practitioners. […] Without your jokes, your laughter, your cynicism and your study groups, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Following Sheffield and speaking from a sunny and snowy clearing somewhere in the mountains of Wyoming, “where social distancing is our innate lifestyle,” Class Speaker Heidi Youmans addressed her classmates with the sort of wry humor and heartfelt regard to which Sheffield was surely referring.

“What a memorable journey this cohort of dedicated learners has experienced together, and how privileged I feel to be among such brilliant minds. […] At points it may have felt like this day would never come, preparing to take our boards, interviewing for jobs, and embracing our calling as PAs. Patients will come to us in their most vulnerable times, and it’s now our duty to use what we learned, practiced and perfected over the years. […] It is said that patients forget most of what you say during an encounter, but that they will remember how you made them feel. […] Remember today, remember this moment, right now, remember how you feel, because with great privilege comes great responsibility. Never forget why you chose to become a PA and continue to choose that each day of your practice.”

Special honors were given to several students from Spokane Class 22, including the following:

  • John Coombs Leadership Award – Annan Sheffield
  • Barbara Gunter-Flynn Underserved Award – Heidi Youmans
  • Writing Award – Mark Smyly
  • Spirit of MEDEX Award – Lauren Trew
  • Mary Reed Award – Julia Snider
  • Steven Turnipseed PA-C Veterans Award – Coty Holm

Congratulations to the graduates of Spokane Class 22!

View the full event recording of the Spokane graduation ceremony here.


MEDEX Northwest Tacoma Class 6

Monday October 5, 2020

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Following welcoming remarks from MEDEX Program Director Terry Scott, and from Drs. Allen, James and Ramsey from UW Medicine, MEDEX Tacoma Campus Director Jennifer Erickson, MPH, PA-C addressed the students with whom she and her colleagues had spent the past two years plus working so closely together. The attachment she felt was immediately apparent.

“As I think back on the past two years, I do not immediately remember a classroom event or discussion that I had with you. I remember you on interview day. I remember how excited you were to be there, and how excited we were as a faculty to interview you all. We spend more time with you than our families, after all. I remember who cried, who made me laugh, who felt confident, who was nervous, and who told me a personal story that made me shed tears after you walked out of the interview room. We remember those things. I remember how much you wanted to be a PA. And now I see you becoming a PA, and I couldn’t be happier for you. I thank you for spending the past few years with me and the rest of the faculty and staff. A huge thank you from me, from Betty, from Jonathan, Jess, Quanté, Bonnie, Jeff, Laura, Dixielynn, Anthony, and of course, Henry Jones.”

Keynote Speaker Kate Osborne, PA-C, a graduate of MEDEX Tacoma Class 1, offered a series of reflective reassurances to the graduating students from her position some five years down the road from where they sit. “You are about to embark on an incredible journey, one that has epic highs, and days of struggles and challenges that make you wonder why you are even practicing medicine. But I can tell you, it is so worth it.”

“Even though you have all known each other for only two and a half years,” Osborne continued, “MEDEX is your home. The friendships and relationships you’ve developed are lifelong. Lean on these relationships and friendships on your toughest days. Share your victories together. Now go forth and change the world, one patient at a time.”

Class President and Student Speaker Scott Peckenpaugh ended his good-natured review of all that he and his fellow classmates went through together with a note of gratitude: “We’ve gained friendships and experiences we’ll never forget. I was lucky enough to learn alongside each and every one of you. Thank you for the humor and support you have all contributed. I would feel lucky to work alongside any one of you, and I look forward to doing so.”

The second Student Speaker of the morning was Class Treasurer Ian Awai. He recalled the fear that he felt from the very first day of class, a feeling emanating both from what he knew was ahead and from what was unknown, a feeling that both he and his classmates shared and worked together to overcome over the course of their years of study together. “If PA school has taught us anything, the biggest thing is that nothing is certain. Plans are going to deviate. There will always be the next hurdle to jump.”

Awai concluded with a quotation from Nelson Mandela: “‘I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’ So, let’s go out and conquer those fears, make an impact in our community, and continue growing as professionals in the medical field. Tacoma Class Six? We’ve got this.”

Special honors were given to several students from Tacoma Class 6, including the following:

  • John Coombs Leadership Award – Rebekah Gorman
  • Ellen Harder Underserved Award – Tyson Bradley
  • Writing Award – Samantha Millar
  • Spirit of MEDEX Award – Kusuma Latha Ayithepalli
  • Mary Reed Award – Julia Snider
  • Steven Turnipseed PA-C Veterans Award – Sarah Clark

Congratulations to the graduates of Tacoma Class 6!

View the full event recording of the Tacoma graduation ceremony here.


MEDEX Northwest Seattle Class 52

Tuesday October 7, 2020

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In his welcoming remarks to graduates of MEDEX Seattle Class 52, Misbah Keen, MD, MBI, MPH, Executive Vice Chair, Department of Family Medicine, stressed the opportunities that lay before them.

“We are going through a period of transformation,” observed Dr. Keen, “and with it comes opportunity, opportunity unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime. You as future leaders of our profession have an unparalleled opportunity and duty to carry the work forward. This will not be easy, but I know that our amazing faculty and staff have done their very best to prepare you for a fulfilling career as a competent PA as well as a change agent.”

Graciously introduced by his classmate and Class President Christopher Page, Joseph Starzl delivered the first Student Speaker remarks of the evening, calling out the extent to which the historic context of their graduation links them ever more closely to the mission that drew them all to MEDEX and to the healthcare profession in the first place.

“The same resiliency that helped us reach this graduation ceremony,” Starzl observed, “is what will help us navigate the challenges that await us. This delayed and virtual graduation ceremony is a reminder that we are PAs beginning our careers in a global pandemic that has exposed and exacerbated shortcomings and injustices in our healthcare system. I know we are ready for this moment, because we embody MEDEX’s core vision to serve our communities with uncompromising commitment and compassion. We are a new generation of physician assistants realizing the original mission of our profession: to improve and expand healthcare access.”

Introduced by Christopher Page as one who “embodies the best of our class in compassion, in empathy and hard work,” the second Student Speaker of the ceremony was Aurea Magbalot. Magbalot’s talk pointed in detail to the remarkable variety of professional backgrounds, experiences and passions that MEDEX students bring with them to their time in PA school. She did so as a way of answering the not-so-simple question that is so often asked of her and her classmates: So, what is a PA? Magbalot named of each and every one of her 47 classmates with an acknowledgment of their extensive experience and a salute to their proven skills. The cumulative effect was striking and the variety and range of commitment to helping others almost impossibly rich.

“This is the caliber and diversity of skills,” concluded Magbalot after naming her final classmate, “that will be going forth this year to practice more medicine. This varied experience is what makes us distinct from doctors and nurses. I am very honored to graduate with such an incredibly talented group of physician assistants. What is a PA? A PA is everyone that I have described, who has gone beyond their current medical training for even more training, so that we can become better providers for our patients. A PA is MEDEX Northwest Seattle Class 52.”

Special honors were given to several students from Seattle Class 52, including the following:

  • John Coombs Leadership Award – Joseph Starzl
  • Richard Layton Underserved Award – Hiep Nguyen
  • Writing Award – Tiffany Dam
  • Spirit of MEDEX Award – Nirupama Jayagopal
  • Steven Turnipseed PA-C Veterans Award – Chris Hilton

Congratulations to the graduates of Seattle Class 52!

View the full event recording of the Seattle graduation ceremony here.

James Wehmeyer is Communications Director of MEDEX Northwest in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at