Things were noticeably different for Samora Charles, PA-C while she was working on her master’s degree.
Growing up in New York City, she regularly saw people who looked like her and her Haitian and Cuban parents everywhere she went. She was now more than 1,000 miles away from home in a small town in the middle of Arkansas where she noticeably stood out.
“I was the only African-American in my class,” said Charles who just graduated in December 2019. “There was very little color in my class of 37.”
Alberto Pineda started his road to become a PA last summer. Pineda, a Mexican-American born in Texas, chose to enroll in the physician assistant studies program at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), a historically Black college. He is one of two Hispanic students in a class of 20.
“After I was accepted to MSM, people around me said I got in because I’m Hispanic,” he said knowing it was his capabilities and not his ethnicity that got him a coveted spot. “They said I was the diversity pick.”
Both Charles and Pineda know they are part of the changing image of physician assistants. They want to create an easier path for future generations in the field, while also being a medical professional their patients can relate to.
According to the NCCPA’s 2018 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants by State, only 13.1 percent of physician assistants identify as non-white. This number is barely half of the United States’ actual count of minorities. According to the 2018 United States Census estimates, 27.8 percent of the nation’s population identified as non-white. The percentages of African-American and Hispanic PAs are each less than one-third of their general populations.
Charles is a founding member of The Physician Assistants of Color Movement, or The PAC Movement. She and co-founder Jasmine Cofield, a PA student at the University of Detroit Mercy Hospital, wanted to reach out to their peers to discuss diversity. They also provided a support system to help others get into and through PA programs. There are now close to 2,000 PA students, those preparing to apply to programs, and working Certified PAs in their Facebook group.
“We host events, mock interviews, provide mentorship and more,” explained Charles. “We’re getting ready for our next major get-together at the AAPA conference in Nashville. Our events get students face-to-face with recruiters and applicants can say ‘I’m more than my application. I’m more than my GPA.’”
As a newly Certified PA, Charles feels diversity in the field is important so patients can see a medical professional they can relate to.
“My grandmother believed in using herbs and teas as treatments,” said Charles of her Caribbean matriarch. “She couldn’t explain it [to staff] and couldn’t speak the language [English]. A white doctor couldn’t relate. A patient is less likely to follow a treatment plan from someone who does not represent them and their culture.”
A lack of representation and understanding is why Pineda is studying to become a PA as well. He learned how important it was to have medical professionals who understand their patients at a very young age.
“I went with my mom to appointments to translate. At age seven or eight I started going with her to the doctor, the dentist, even the OB/GYN,” said Pineda.
His mother did not speak English and his father passed away when he was just two years old. A young Pineda tried his best to translate medical terms for his mother and other family members while still in elementary school. It was this experience that opened his eyes to a career in medicine, but his path would not be an easy one. This was due in part to expectations from his Mexican background.
“I dropped out of high school and started working different jobs—at restaurants, PetSmart and other retailers,” said Pineda. “In my culture, you’re expected to go get a full-time job and bring money to the family.
At about age 19, Pineda decided to go back to school and earn his high school diploma. He then went on to earn his bachelors at Georgia Gwinnett College before enrolling at MSM.
“Some family members would say ‘You’re still in school?’ or have other derogatory comments,” he said. “It’s okay to not live by customs of your culture. This is something I want to do not just for myself and my family, but for my community.”
Both Charles and Pineda take the opportunity to educate their peers and learn from others as well.
“I find we have a lot of things in common. A lot more beyond color,” said Pineda.
“We need to keep an open mind,” said Charles. “Diversity is a good thing. It doesn’t have to be a negative. It takes everyone to do their part. We need to remember that we’re doing it to improve patient care.”