Perfect Record

December 15, 2021

Students in MBU's physician assistant program gather outside Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.

The physician assistant program (MSPA) at Mary Baldwin University’s College of Health Sciences has achieved something remarkable: 100% of alumni have passed national certification exams on their first try since the program launched in 2016. 

The accreditation is comparable to the bar exam for lawyers, and serves as a gateway for employment. According to U.S. News & World Report, about 93% of PA grads achieve certification within six months of completion nationally, and just 18% of U.S. programs can boast 100% passage rates within five years. Both stats would drop dramatically if grads were only allowed one shot at the test, as many take it a few times before passing.

What makes MBU’s MSPA program so extraordinary is that participants have all passed on their first attempt. It’s the only school in Virginia to achieve the distinction. 

Students in MBU's physician assistant program gather outside Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.

The track record — combined with about 95 percent of graduates landing “preferred jobs” within six months — has earned the program what director Dr. Kent Diduch calls “a shining star reputation.” It’s now widely regarded as one of the nation’s best. Accordingly, graduates are highly sought after. 

On one hand, “this shows we’re following through on what we’re promising students upfront, which is: ‘We’re going to prepare you and help you launch a great career,’” said Diduch. On the other, “It tells prospective students that, if they come here and put in the hard work, they can expect an excellent return on investment.” 

Diduch says he and his MBU colleagues have worked tirelessly to create that pipeline of success. 

“We’ve been extremely conscientious about setting up the curriculum as a process that gives students a foundation, then helps them build themselves up bit by bit until they reach the professional level,” said Diduch.

For instance, having a dedicated College of Health Sciences campus is crucial. It offers students unparalleled immersion in a learning community of like-minded peers, professionals, and professors. Alumni liken the experience to a summer-meets-boot-camp for aspiring medical professionals. For serious students, “it’s both insanely intense, and an insane amount of fun,” said Montana Weitzel MSPA  ’21. “For those two-and-a-half-years, your life is the program. And it goes beyond  learning — you’re being transformed into a highly qualified medical professional.

Students in MBU's physician assistant program do some group clowning after a white coat ceremony.

“Our goal is to meet students where they are and create a personalized roadmap for getting them the knowledge and training they need to be successful,” said Diduch. The approach enables professors to nurture students, and feed them information in a manner where “they’re going to internalize it, own it, live it, add to it throughout their careers.” 

The program is divided into two elements. First comes 15 months of didactic instruction in classrooms and laboratories. It’s followed by a year of supervised, full-time rotations in professional clinical environments. The latter covers a diverse range of settings — outpatient, inpatient, operating room, and emergency department — and includes caring for patients across the lifespan. Partnerships with professionals and organizations that align with Mary Baldwin’s mission around healthcare education have been carefully cultivated to maximize student-focused learning. The clinical rotations are set up to “be an extension of our campus learning experience,” said Diduch. “Again, the goal is to build on all the learning students have achieved. The [supervised clinical experiences] enable them to refine their skills through clinical reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving in real life clinical encounters.”

That means that by the time students graduate, passing the certification exam is a breeze.  

“You watch their competency, and thus their confidence, grow and grow and grow,” said Diduch. From that perspective, most emerge as very different people compared to when they came in.  

But don’t just take Diduch’s word for it. Below, a pair of recent graduates share stories about their experience in the PA program and what makes it so special.

*Interviews have been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Montana Weitzel MSPA  ’21 

What made you want to be a PA? 

My journey to becoming a PA began my freshman year of high school after I tore my ACL. I was an avid soccer player, so it was devastating to learn I’d have to have surgery and do months of rehabilitation. 

But there was a PA that helped me through it. He was kind, took the time to explain everything in terms I could understand, answered all my questions, and never made me feel rushed. That rapport made me feel calmer and more confident going into the surgery.

Afterward, I felt so appreciative. I realized that having access to a great medical professional could transform a frightening experience into something manageable. It inspired me to want to be that person.

What brought you to MBU?

I’m from Durham, NC, and was looking into PA programs on the East Coast. I happened upon MBU’s and it looked really interesting, so I went ahead and set up a campus visit. Once I got there, I immediately fell in love with the area —  the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley were just stunningly beautiful! 

But what sealed the deal was actually the campus security guard, Al. He gave us an impromptu tour of the new Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences building and was just so passionate about the program, and excited to show us the facility. It turned out that everyone I met was like that. By the time we drove away, I knew this was the place for me.

Montana Weitzel MSPA  ’21 

Where do you currently work and what are your responsibilities?

After graduating, I took a position at a private-practice, outpatient family medicine and urgent care facility in Alexandria. There I serve two roles. As a primary care provider, it’s my job to help patients manage chronic conditions. As an acute care provider, I treat just about anything that walks through the door. 

Do you feel like MBU’s PA program prepared you for your career?

The short answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ I cannot begin to express how prepared I felt entering the workforce. I mean, I’m a new graduate functioning independently and serving as a sole provider managing a variety of conditions at a very busy, very well-established practice. And I’m 27 years old. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but that’s pretty incredible! 

What was the most important professional lesson you learned at MBU?

How to think clinically. Our instructors demanded we do more than just memorize a bunch of facts. They taught us the process of getting to the right diagnosis: How to know what questions to ask, how to ask them, how to factor in a patient’s medical history, how to understand current symptoms, how to come up with a treatment plan. That sort of thing. 

We actually had an entire course dedicated to this. In it our instructors threw all kinds of different clinical scenarios at us. Some would involve patients with lab work, some with imaging, and some with no background information at all. We’d also have to look at different patient demographics for each. Like, how would the situation change if this was a woman of childbearing age? What if they have a history of immunosuppression? What if you were treating them in an outpatient setting vs. the [emergency room]? 

One of my most memorable [eureka moments] came when professor Emily Greene was leading one of these exercises. 

She started by giving us a basic scenario with minimal information. She then asked us to list all our possible diagnoses on sticky notes and arrange them hierarchically from least to most likely. Then she’d share a little more information about, say, the patient’s medical history, and ask us to reorder our notes accordingly. The process repeated and, bit by bit, a clearer picture emerged. 

The exercise forced us to work through the clinical decision-making process and observe the way our diagnoses shifted based on how much information was available. It taught us how to think, ask better questions, and never jump to conclusions.

What was your biggest takeaway from your time at MBU? 

Beyond all the great professional training, what I will never forget is how the people in this program became like a second family to me. While those two-and-a-half years were probably the hardest of my life, they were also the best: My classmates, the faculty and staff — even the building itself came to feel like a second home. 

Professors cared about you as a person. They’d go out of their way to support you and get to know you. Like, I’d walk into a professor’s office and they’d ask me about my grandparents that just came to visit, or congratulate me on an exam from another class. That felt really great. It made me feel proud, and profoundly grateful to be a part of this program.

Christine Hatter MSPA ’21

Christine Hatter MSPA ’21

What made you want to be a PA? 

My mother is a nurse and my father is a surgeon. I knew from an early age that I was passionate about following in their footsteps and going into the medical field. 

My father worked with the same PA for years, and I got to know her well. I talked with her about how much she loved her job, the ability of PAs to change specialties, and the lifestyle balance afforded by her career. I loved what she had to say, and I decided to follow suit. 

Why MBU?

On one hand, I could tell right away from my interview that this program was going to support me. Everyone was so genuine and kind. You could tell they loved their jobs, and that they believed in the values of the program. They left me feeling 100 percent certain they’d go the extra mile to help me succeed. 

On the other hand, I really loved the area. I grew up in a small town in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York. The mountains and the beautiful countryside were comforting; it made me feel right at home!

Where do you currently work and what are your responsibilities?

I’m a physician assistant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. I’m currently participating in the Surgical Residency Program, which enables me to rotate through and learn about a variety of surgical specialties. My current responsibilities include managing or helping with surgical patients in pre-op, post-op, on the surgical floor, or in the intensive care unit.

Do you feel like MBU’s PA program prepared you for your career?

Absolutely! It not only prepared me to pass my [certification exam] — which after the rigors of the program itself felt like a walk in the park — it also did an excellent job of preparing me for work in the real world. 

For instance, I felt confident and excited walking into my first day in my new position. And that confidence continues to grow with experience. I look forward to the challenges each new day may bring, and I feel sure that I’m up to the task of meeting them. 

What was the most important professional lesson you learned at MBU?

There are so many great examples, but our medical history and physical exam course comes immediately to mind. It taught me how to walk into a room with a patient, ask the right questions, and perform a thorough and efficient physical exam. My professors were incredible, taking the time to observe me [closely and relentlessly], and to work with me one-on-one to perfect my approach.  

They built on that training in our clinical reasoning class, which taught me to use the information from my examinations to formulate a diagnosis and determine next steps for treatment. Those skills are imperative in any situation, but particularly when you’re working [on the surgical side of the] ER. 

What was your biggest takeaway from your time at MBU? 

The relationships I formed with the people I met in the program. My professors during my didactic year and my preceptors — i.e. the medical professionals who oversaw my clinical work — were all fantastic teachers. They were extremely passionate about their work, and were just over-the-top supportive of me. 

That enthusiasm was infectious. I learned so much from them, and I strive to model myself after them as a professional. In fact, they inspired me to want to become a preceptor myself. I look forward to one day paying it forward and helping future generations of students become PAs. 

Lastly, I can’t say enough about my fellow students. They were so hard working and determined, yet they always made you feel like a part of the team. I made some of my very best friends at MBU, and I’m honored to now be able to call them my colleagues.

From left: MSPA students celebrate the completion of their didactic studies; program director Dr. Kent Diduch helping students into their new white coats.

TO LEARN MORE about MBU’s shining star physician assistant program, click HERE.