Sisters make physician assistant program a family affair

4 – minute read

Allayna Vanderheid, who graduated with a master of physician assistant studies in December, gained a favorable impression of the program long before she enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University. This came courtesy of favorable reviews of the program from her sister, Zoe, a 2021 graduate.


So, when the time came for Allayna to consider PA programs, FGCU topped the list of possibilities.


“Zoe really loved her program at FGCU,” she said. “It was an easy decision for me to add it to my applications. When I had an admissions interview, they liked me, and I liked them, and it worked out perfectly.”

fgcu grads
Sisters Zoe, left, and Allayna Vanderheid both earned master's degrees in physician assistant studies at FGCU.

Indeed, Vanderheid’s educational journey culminated in the best possible way, by her landing a position at an orthopedics practice in Naples — her hometown. It has its roots in her undergraduate studies at the University of Florida, where she majored in health education, a discipline she called a sound foundation for a PA position, in which the health education of patients figures prominently. She also became a certified health education specialist.

After graduating from UF in 2018, she gained experience as a pharmacy technician, a medical assistant in pain management and a medical assistant/scribe in orthopedics.


At FGCU, Vanderheid experienced the good things her sister raved about and more, she said. Her cohort had only 20 students, for example, so small classes were the norm.


The result: “The professors were accessible by email for any questions we would have from class or homework or assignments,” she said. “If there were multiple students asking the same questions, they would take the time to address the whole class.”

Vanderheid added that the small size of FGCU’s PA program enables professors to “learn the personalities and learning styles of each student and how they will best absorb and learn the information they are teaching.” It also “allows the graduate students easier access to resources,” she said.


One such resource is a cadaver lab students can use and learn from in class and after hours.

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“Some programs don’t offer a cadaver lab, or it is solely online,” Vanderheid said.


Vanderheid found that she greatly benefited from the varied teaching methods faculty use. These ranged from lectures to a mentor-mentee scheme in which younger students interacted with more senior ones on assignments. Professor-led reviews helped students focus on what they should know for their exams.


Several of Vanderheid’s professors work or worked as PAs in addition to teaching. This meant that they often illustrated concepts by drawing on their own professional experiences. Vanderheid spoke of being shown images of CT scans or chest X-rays of the ER patients treated by Katheryn Knutson, an instructor. After learning a patient’s history, the students would ask Knutson questions and then spell out a course of treatment.


“That really helped me because that’s how I learned best,” Vanderheid said.

Other qualities that she valued about her professors were their flexibility and willingness to accept feedback. The flexibility manifested itself in, say, a willingness to adjust exam dates or times to accommodate holidays, providing additional lesson plans as needed, and ensuring all classroom material became available online after Hurricane Ian struck.  


Another aspect of FGCU’s PA program Vanderheid liked was the way clinical rotations are structured in 12 four-week rotations. Nine rotations focus on “core” areas, such as women’s health, primary care, internal medicine and pediatrics, while three rotations center on electives.


“Our rotations are shorter than those at many schools, but we have more of them,” Vanderheid said. “I would say you can have a better view of how the world works in medicine. I preferred to see as much as I could.


“I’m so thankful that I went to that school and how it worked out for me,” she said. “It really was amazing.”


This is part of a series of stories spotlighting outstanding December graduates.



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