We Celebrate Black History Month 2009
Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & CCNY President Gregory Williams Speak at Physician Assistants Graduation
Wide smiles, unabashed pride, and a special sense of optimism burst from the twenty-member class of 2009 as they received the BS degree in Physician Assistant (PA) Studies in the magnificent Great Hall at The City College of New York. The rigorous 28.5 month PA program at the college’s Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education furthers a mission to provide access to the medical sciences for under-represented groups and to train caregivers for underserved communities. Physician assistants are licensed health care professionals who practice medicine under the supervision of a medical doctor. Developed in the 1960s, the field was designed to provide practitioners for underserved areas. This year marked the 35th graduation at Sophie Davis, one of the first such programs in the nation and, as always, the class was an inspiring rainbow of diversity with students from as far away as Senegal, Pakistan, and Ecuador, and as close as Staten Island, New Jersey, and Harlem.
Sophie Davis Dean Dr. Stanford Roman reminded the students that they were assuming “a most awesome task taking care of people, a sacred trust.” To the new physician assistants, he emphasized the need for “listening”, “empathy”, and “putting yourself in patients’ shoes.” President of City College Dr. Gregory Williams, who has seen enrollment rise from 9,000 to 15,000 under his leadership, noted the founding mission of the college was to “bring education to the whole people” and the current challenge is to “bring affordable health care to all Americans.” The sense of hope and opportunity pervading the graduation sprung from the pledge of new President Barack Obama to implement changes and establish universal health care. To the graduates, Williams declared, “You are part and parcel of the promise of a new America.”
In his introduction of keynote speaker Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the renowned author, public intellectual, and Harvard Professor of African-American history and literature, Williams spoke of “the extraordinary impact on the way we and the world think about identity” because of the work of Gates. His books are “groundbreakers,” each delving into an aspect of the African-American experience. His timely upcoming PBS special on Abraham Lincoln will show “the line between that day and this, the election of a black man to the Presidency,” said a clearly moved Williams. Gates, a charming, funny, and delightful man, admitted to being lured as graduation speaker by his sister-in-law, assistant dean and director of the PA program, Gemina Gates, but also noted he has a keen interest in the medical sciences and is part of a family with many practitioners. Speaking personally with Education Update, Gates, leaning on his cane confessed that among his greatest challenges was beating an almost fatal massive infection that followed hip replacement and also professionally meeting an 18 month deadline editing the Encyclopedia Africana. He even shared that he had been a surgical physician assistant at an Anglican mission hospital during a year abroad in East Africa in 1973 while he was an undergraduate at Yale. There, while administering anesthesia to patients, he learned to “appreciate the crucial role PAs play,” an appreciation that has magnified since, when, as a patient undergoing over a dozen surgeries, he learned, “the first and last person you see is a PA.” Gates is especially well known and honored for his contributions in black cultural history. In his widely viewed PBS series “African-American Lives,” he used DNA to trace the ancestries of 19 prominent black people, finding hidden histories and unexpected blood mixtures, including much European blood. Because his own DNA test showed a match with a Black soldier of the Revolutionary War, he is a proud member of the Sons of the American Revolution and is looking for other blacks with similar blood links. He hopes to continue work in genealogy and genetics to trace family trees and “give African-Americans their heritage back”, and would like to see an ancestry-based curriculum in history and science for African-American students. Comparing his work to that of the PAs, Gates said, “Doing one’s family tree is a way of giving life to one’s ancestors, to restoring lives, just as you will preserve and restore life.”
The graduates received their certificates and repeated the PA oath, turning classmates into colleagues. As he congratulated them, Dr. Maurice Wright, medical director of the PA program, reminded his new co-workers that their formal education was over but much learning lies ahead as the field of medicine is constantly and rapidly changing.#