C of I celebrates first class of PA graduates

Twenty years after earning her undergraduate degree in elementary education, Katrina Merrell decided to go back to school and start a new career—a decision that led her to a master’s program in physician assistant studies. Balancing a strenuous school workload with being a mother and a wife, Merrell has conquered every obstacle over the past two years.

And last weekend, she joined her 11 classmates as the first-ever graduating class from the joint PA program created by The College of Idaho and Idaho State University.

“The first class is kind of like your first kid,” said Marv Sparrell, associate program director. “They break down all of the barriers; they stretch the limits and set the flavor for the whole program. This first class, they’re a special group of people.”

A physician assistant works on teams with physicians, surgeons and other healthcare workers, helping to examine and treat patients. Physician assistants have become a necessary part of the medical workforce as the aging baby-boomer generation creates doctor shortages.

In 1995, Idaho State started the only PA program in Idaho, adding a second campus in Meridian a decade later. In the fall of 2014, ISU linked arms with the C of I for a joint master’s program on a third campus in Caldwell. Though they are 250 miles apart, the separation seems nonexistent as all three campuses are linked through distance learning and instruction can come from any campus on a given day.

As Idaho ranks last in the nation for the number of physicians per capita, according to the Idaho Department of Labor, the expansion of the PA program at the C of I helps to fill the growing need for skilled medical professionals.

For Merrell, entering the PA program made her both excited and nervous. She was “cautiously optimistic” about the challenge. She and her fellow students spent 40 hours in the classroom per week their first year, as they stuffed their brains to the max and absorbed new information day after day.

That intensity is the biggest challenge for students, said David Talford, clinical assistant professor. It’s also a process which produces visible growth and maturity in each student over two years.

Completing such a demanding program has meant Merrell has leaned on the rock-solid pillar she calls her husband.

“I have an amazing husband who has been completely supportive and took over the mom and dad role,” she said. “You cannot do this without support because it is such an intense program.”

After a year in the classroom, the 12 students stretched their legs and spent their second year in clinical rotations. Each student does eight rotations: emergency medicine, internal medicine, outpatient medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and one elective.

“Once they get into rotations during the second year, then they can start to see the light a little bit more because they’re out actually practicing what they’ve learned,” Talford said.

And that has led to several poignant moments for Merrell, including treating her first patient, seeing rare diseases and experiencing the death of a patient for the first time.

While working in the trauma emergency room, emergency medical technicians came in performing CPR on a patient. Merrell’s heart was racing. She knew she needed to cut the patient’s clothes off and check his pulse. She didn’t even finish cutting his pants before the doctor had called everyone away and declared the patient dead.

“It was kind of surreal, because it happened so quickly,” Merrell said. “It makes you stop and think about life.”

By going back to school, Merrell decided to shoot for the moon. Along the way, she inspired her 17-year-old daughter, who is proud of what her mom has accomplished. The PA faculty, too, is proud of the job Merrell and her classmates have done pioneering the expansion campus at The College of Idaho.

“It’s like seeing your first kid go off to school,” Sparrell said of the first graduating class. “In a way, you’re a proud parent. And I know they’re going to be great PAs.”

Note: The first class of students in the joint College of Idaho-Idaho State University Master of Physician Assistant Studies program participated in C of I commencement ceremonies on May 21. The students will officially receive their degrees in Pocatello this August upon completion of their clinical work.

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit