Duke Physician Assistant Program Holds Graduation at Duke Chapel

By Rhiannon Giles


The Duke Physician Assistant (PA) Program held its graduation and certificate ceremony on Aug. 6, with a hybrid in-person and live-streamed event.

After managing a difficult course of study for two years, most during the COVID-19 pandemic, 89 students were awarded their diplomas at Duke Chapel.


Program Director Jacqueline Barnett DHSc, MHS, PA-C at podium in Duke Chapel

Program Director Jacqueline Barnett DHSc, MHS, PA-C spoke first, saying, "When the folks talk about the history of the Duke PA program, the legendary PA class of 2021 will be in those history books. […] You did amazing things in your time at the program and truly embraced humanity and the mission of the program. You were vocal and demonstrated a commitment to racial equity and justice, and yes, you spoke up and you spoke out."

The class of 2021 had a typical start to their PA education: meeting new friends, adapting their study skills to the rigor of PA school, and exploring Durham. Then, with months left in the preclinical year, COVID-19 arrived to strip away most semblances of normalcy. Classes abruptly moved to online formats, and students, used to spending every day together, could no longer study in the same room.

Shelby Neil, Class President at podium

Student president Shelby Neil said, "We went from room 208 to our couches. Our entire learning environment flipped in an instant. We had to be flexible. […] But the isolation was disturbing. We watched as the world around us changed in incomprehensible ways. COVID brought a lot out of us, but we thrived; we became volunteers and activists within the political realm, the health care realm, the social realm, and everywhere in between."

She went on to congratulate the class on raising more than $10,000 that will be divided between the Lincoln Community Health Center, TROSA, the Community Empowerment Fund and the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Duke PA Graduates wearing Duke blue masks

The sea of Duke blue masks under the Gothic arches and stained glass inside Duke Chapel served as a reminder of the tenuousness of plans even now. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, the surge of the Delta variant caused official guidelines to shift repeatedly, with capacities and rules of attendance changing several times and the renewed Duke mask mandate taking place just one week before the event.

For loved ones unable to attend in person, the PA program, in collaboration with Duke Chapel, live-streamed the event. Approximately 250 people watched virtually, sending their congratulations through the comment feed of a private YouTube link.

School of Medicine Dean Mary Klotman, MD, also spoke, saying, "There is no doubt that Duke's PA program is one of the brightest jewels in the School of Medicine's crown. Congratulations to all of you in this extraordinary accomplishment, particularly in this unprecedented moment."


This year, the following PA students were inducted into Pi Alpha, the national PA honor society:

  • Sarah Bouchard
  • Lauren Giese
  • Catherine Mulqueen
  • Maleah Roth
  • Sophia Tieu
  • John Kimball
  • Kyla Agbayani
  • Michelle Metzler
  • Erin Figgins
  • Rayena McLaughlin
  • Shelby Neil
  • Adaugo Iwuala
  • Mariah Leroux
  • Tony McLaurin

In addition, Martha Nelson, MHS, PA-C, was inducted to Pi Alpha as a faculty member.

Lovest Alexander, Jr., MHS, PA-C introducing alumnus of the year Susan Blackwell Crawford, MHS, PA-C

Lovest Alexander, Jr., MHS, PA-C introduced alumnus of the year winner Susan Blackwell Crawford, MHS, PA-C, acknowledging her "longstanding dedication to the physician assistant profession and to health care delivery, and for her leadership in PA practice at Duke and of Duke PA alumni."

The Scheele award, established by the Duke PA program in 1970, recognizes alumnus Richard J. Scheele. Betsy Melcher, MS, ATC, MHS, PA-C, announced Stead Society Outreach Co-Chair Sarah Bouchard as the recipient for the Class of 2021.


Betsy Melcher, MS, ATC, MHS, PA-C with Scheele award winner Sarah Bouchard

Melcher said, "She piloted a fundamental change to how her PA class approached community outreach during their training through the novel Integrated Units Outreach Projects. This included aligning focus on community needs with areas of medicine that she and her classmates were learning in their didactic and clinical experiences. For example, if they were learning about diabetes, they participated in service related to local food insecurity needs."

Alicia Bolden, MPH, DMedSc with Joyce C. Nichols award winner Michelle Metzler

Alicia Bolden, MPH, DMedSc, presented Michelle Metzler with the Joyce C. Nichols Award. Nichols, the first woman and the first Black physician assistant, was a tireless advocate for the poor and underserved. Bolden recognized Metzler as a charter member of the Duke University Chapter of White Coats for Black Lives [link] and the Racial Justice Student Alliance.

Kyla Kirsten-Perez Agbayani with Buddy Treadwell award winner Alicia Bolden, MPH, DMedSc

PA student Kyla Kirsten-Perez Agbayani presented Alicia Bolden, MPH, DMedSc, with the Henry "Buddy" Lee Treadwell  award on behalf of the Class of 2021. The class chose Bolden for reasons such as her "ingenuity in redesigning the prevention and population health course for the class of 2022 with focus on difficult but important topics such as systemic racism, population health, LBGTQ medicine, cultural competency, and socioeconomic disparities, and her passion, support, and advocacy in diversity and inclusion."

The award is named after Treadwell, who greatly influenced the vision of Eugene A. Stead Jr., M.D., for PA education and function. Stead founded the Duke Physician Assistant Program and the profession.


Maleah Rachelle Roth awarding Staff Award to Kate Holeman

The Class of 2021 awarded Kate Holeman the Stead Society's Outstanding Staff Award for the second year running. Speaking for the class, student Maleah Rachelle Roth said, "anytime I had trouble contacting a preceptor or had a change in my rotation schedule or couldn't figure out some paperwork I needed to fill out, she was always there with an answer -- even on weekends and evenings. And if you speak with any one of the class of 2021 - and there are 90 of us - they will tell you that she did the same thing for them."

Congratulations to the Duke Physician Assistant Program Class of 2021.


To see more photos visit our graduation photo album on Facebook


Dr. Barnett and other faculty applaud graduates