WESTFIELD – Westfield State University is one step closer to being a leader for public colleges in New England. The university’s trustees approved the Master of Science in Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program on Dec. 10, and the program will go before the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education later this month.
The 24-month graduate program will be open to students beyond Westfield State. If approved, the program will be the first PA program offered at a public institution in New England.
Founding PA Director Jennifer Hixon, D.H.Sc, PA-C, said this program provides an excellent opportunity for the university, as well as potential students.
“This is all in advantage for the students, really. I guess Westfield State leading the charge has just shown great courage and initiative as far as I’m concerned,” Hixon said. “PA programs aren’t inexpensive to run, but they are certainly worth it for the institution in the long run.”
When students graduate, they will have the credentials of a PA and will be able to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination to begin their careers. With annual salaries ranging from $90,000 to $100,000, Hixon said having classes of the students will be an economic boost for Hampden County.
“They will change the community. They will buy homes, go out to dinner. They are great contributors, from the tax base to the business base to the social bases,” Hixon said. “Granted they may only be 24 students in a graduating class, but it’s a great start.”
Those who complete the PA program will also have the benefit of a lower cost compared to private colleges, Hixon said. Creating a pathway for students through the public education system to a career in the health sciences has been her goal.
“Really my goal is to create a pathway just like Division I athletics from high school to community college into a public institution so we can mentor and advise students as they move forward in their education in all areas of health science,” Hixon said. “We can help them get to the right place. This pathway through the public system will be satisfied here at Westfield State.”
Once Hixon is able to hire additional faculty, she said the department will take a proactive approach in recruiting students by going to high schools, community colleges and area universities, like UMass Amherst. It provides a chance, she said, to reach out to students who may not know a career in health sciences is for them.
The department can “start to mentor these students that have the ability, capacity and desire to move to improve their credentials all across the health sciences,” Hixon said.
Hixon hopes this can be a model for the rest of the Commonwealth to follow.
Once the program is approved by state, it will also earn provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Hixon expects to enroll the inaugural class as soon as 2017.