Skip to main content

UC San Diego School of Medicine Welcomes First Cohort of Physician Assistant Students

The new PA program will serve a vital role in addressing health care provider shortages throughout Southern California

Six Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program students shown smiling while wearing new white coats.
The newly launched Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program welcomed it's inaugural class of 30 students on Monday, June 3. During their orientation activities, the students were fitted for their white coats, which they will receive at the White Coat Ceremony on Friday, June 7. Photo by Melinda Sevilla/UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Published Date

Article Content

In 2020, the California Health Care Foundation estimated that nearly 688,000 people in San Diego and Imperial Counties lived in an area with a shortage of primary care physicians, and the situation is expected to worsen. To help address this critical health care issue in the community, University of California San Diego School of Medicine has launched the new Richard C. and Rita L. Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program. The school welcomed the inaugural class of physician assistant (PA) students on Monday, June 3.

“Our PA graduates will be well-prepared to work collaboratively with physicians and other health care professionals, delivering compassionate, empathetic, person-centered care to the diverse communities of Southern California,” said Michelle Daniel, M.D., vice dean for medical education at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The new 29-month Master of Advanced Studies in Physician Assistant Studies degree program will provide the necessary training for PAs to immediately enter the workforce upon graduation.

“Fewer than 30% of PA programs across the country are embedded within academic health systems. Our students will participate in interprofessional training opportunities alongside UC San Diego’s medical, pharmacy and public health students,” explained Elias Villarreal, DMSc, PA-C, associate dean and founding program director for the Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program. “Our location along the U.S.-Mexico border and our clinical training opportunities at UC San Diego Health locations across San Diego and Imperial Counties provide a unique educational environment that will prepare our future PAs to provide care for some of the most underserved communities in our state.”

Arrive and thrive

During the first week of school, the PA students are completing the “Arrive and Thrive” orientation program. Activities are dedicated to building community, meeting program faculty and learning about the academic and wellness resources across UC San Diego that will enhance student success. Students will also participate in a Harry Potter-inspired “sorting hat ceremony” where they will be assigned to one of five longitudinal learning communities (LLCs). LLCs serve as advising and social groups throughout the duration of the program. The LLCs are named after five national parks in California – Redwood, Yosemite, Sequoia, Channel Islands and Joshua Tree – and advisors will be known as the groups’ “park rangers.”

Orientation will conclude with the program’s White Coat Ceremony on June 7. A time-honored tradition at health professions schools, white coat ceremonies mark the beginning of the educational journey for new students where they receive the white coat that they will wear throughout their clinical training. The presentation of the coats will also be accompanied by a reading of the Physician Assistant Professional Oath.

“The white coat represents a hopeful outlook for the future,” said new PA student Brookelyn Hanley, a 2023 graduate of the University of Notre Dame who grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “I know that when I step into my white coat, I will do everything I can to help my patients and serve my community in the best way possible.”

Richard and Rita Atkinson
Richard and Rita Atkinson committed nearly $7 million to establish and endow the physician assistant education program at UC San Diego. (Courtesy photo)

Program history

Former UC San Diego Chancellor and UC President Emeritus Richard C. Atkinson and his late wife, Rita L. Atkinson, committed nearly $7 million in 2020 for the development of the Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program. The program was developed over a three-year period and received provisional accreditation status from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) in September 2023. 

“We are very grateful for the support from the Atkinsons for the new PA program,” said Steven R. Garfin, M.D., interim dean for UC San Diego School of Medicine. “I am very proud of the entire Division of Medical Education team who worked tirelessly over the last three years to bring the Atkinsons’ vision for this program to life.”

Instrumental to these development efforts were Judd Laraway, PA-C, who helped ideate the creation of a PA program at UC San Diego, and Maria Savoia, M.D., dean emeritus of medical education at School of Medicine and founding medical director for the Atkinson Physician Education Program. Savoia worked closely with Villarreal to develop the PA degree proposal and guide the program though the ARC-PA accreditation and UC approval processes.  

It has been wonderful to help shepherd the program from its inception,” said Savoia. “We are excited to develop these PA students into skilled practitioners who will help address the health care needs of our region. Without the generosity of the Atkinsons and the support of the university, this dream would not have become reality.”

The Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program is the University of California system’s first PA program in Southern California and the second PA program in the system. The other UC-based PA program is located at the UC Davis.

Applications for the second cohort of the Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program are being accepted through August 1, 2024. More information is available at the program website:


Listen in as our inaugural class members share their why.

Share This:

Category navigation with Social links