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Each year, current first-year Duke physician assistant students are matched up with an incoming student.

First Year Student Blog: Allison Higa-Howerton

It was early May 2014 and my husband and I were finishing up our jobs in Des Moines, Iowa. We were planning our ambitious road trip to relocate to Durham, North Carolina and finishing off our bucket list of favorite activities before we moved.

In just one month we’d be living in a new state, trying to learn the lay of the land. And in just three months I’d be starting my own epic journey — two whirlwind years of education at the Duke Physician Assistant Program.

While I had extensively researched the rigors of PA school prior to my applying (and even more so after my acceptance), I still had butterflies, to say the least, about how I would not just survive PA school but thrive. At this stressful point, in stepped my mentor.

Each year, current first-year Duke physician assistant students are matched up with an incoming student. It was May 9 when I first got an email from my mentor. I can say this with certainty, as I have saved every email that I have received from my mentor. Yes, one might say that this is a little excessive but I have truly enjoyed and appreciated all the guidance that my mentor has provided.

Our conversations started off with the basics: “Where are you from? What was your clinical experience prior to PA school?” But this quickly morphed into a relationship that was much more meaningful.

My mentor did not hesitate to offer me guidance, advice, and reassurance with her very first contact. She even offered her phone number and the ability to contact her via email, phone, or text at any time. It was as if she could read my mind — asking me about my concerns and thoughts about starting my PA education and if there was anything I was particularly anxious about.

Email was our main form of communication, yet I felt like I knew her and was comfortable with her. 

Meeting my PA program mentor

My husband and I were fortunate enough to meet my mentor at a local Durham eatery prior to the start of my first year.  Without a doubt I was nervous. Other than my interview day, this was only the second time that I would be meeting a current student in person.

Would meeting her make me feel “unworthy” of acceptance into this program? Would I appear not “smart enough” to excel in the rigorous Duke PA program? What would she think of me?

Of course by this point in my blog you can probably guess how our initial in-person meeting went — it was great! No fancy jargon needed. She was pleasant, down to earth, and everything that I had imagined from her emails.

Her easygoing demeanor helped to settle my unease and I left that restaurant with not only a belly full of delicious local food, but with a sense that everything was going to be alright. I knew I was going to be successful in PA school, not just because others before me had achieved this feat or because I believed in my own abilities, but because I knew that there would always be someone there to help me through the process.

The night before my first day of class I got a message from my mentor asking if I was ready for tomorrow. Was I ready? Not really. I didn’t know how I would handle meeting so many new people in one day or how I was going to survive the coming days jam packed with classes.

But my mentor helped me to see beyond eight hours of class and look at the big picture. Why had I even considered becoming a PA in the first place? Contemplating this question has helped me to persevere through long days of classes and countless hours of studying.

As the year progressed, we maintained contact via email. Instead of being nervous about doing well on tests, now I was anxious about transferring this information into clinical practice.

We were fortunate to reunite on Call Back Days (where second-year students return to the building for special events).  These interactions allowed me to see where I would be one year from that point — enjoying and excelling in clinical rotations and one step closer to becoming a practicing PA.

As I now begin a relationship with my own incoming student mentee, I can’t help but try to emulate the relationship I have with my mentor. 


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