Despite being displaced from their St. Croix campus by Hurricane Maria, three Virgin Islands students of Barry University’s physician assistant program took part in graduation ceremonies – surrounded by friends and family – Friday in Miami.
According to a news release from Barry, the three Virgin Islanders taking part were Camille Paul, 29 and Anthony Centeno, 25, both from St. Croix, and St. Thomian Shenika Garner, 33. They walked across the stage and joined in celebration with their 2017 graduating class, who had been divided amongst three campuses, in Miami and St. Petersburg, FL, and St. Croix.
For most of the roughly two and half year program, the three natives studied from the St. Croix campus along with 20 other students from the mainland until Hurricane Maria devastated the island Sept. 19 and 20.
Before the storm hit, ravaging St. Croix, Barry University made resources available to evacuate their St. Croix students and staff to their Florida campuses. But some students remained behind to weather the storm, including Paul and Garner. With little power and communication to continue their studies, the two were able to leave the island 10 days after the storm to complete the final leg of the program.
Speakers during the ceremony commended the students from all three campuses on the adversity they had to overcome in their last semester as both Hurricanes Irma and Maria impacted the territory and the state of Florida.
“This last semester was by far the toughest of my time in the program,” Garner said. “Hurricane Maria threatened my ability to graduate on time. but little did she know that this wasn’t my first rodeo.” Garner said as a senior at Xavier University in New Orleans he had been interrupted in his studies by Hurricane Katrina.
“I didn’t let Katrina stop me then, and I refused to allow Maria to win,” he said.
Paul, who knew she wanted to work in healthcare from a young age, said it was a comforting experience being able to study at home on St. Croix after years of studying and working in the States. Moreover, interacting with her local community through the PA program made the experience even more special.
“A major part of our education is interacting with real patients during clinical rotations out in the field, and that field was essentially my backyard and the patients were people from my community – a good bit of whom I knew personally,” Paul said. “This made the experience even more personal and rewarding because my patients were always so excited to hear that I was from St. Croix and were extremely willing to play their part in my learning experience.”
Garner, who hails St. Thomas, said being at home was the best part of Barry’s program and was thankful to have her support system nearby in St. Thomas and the BVI as she applied herself intensely to her studies.
“In between studying and attending classes, I was able to enjoy the comfort of Armstrong’s Ice Cream, a day on the beach, as well as attending Ag Fair and Mango Melee which were all a welcomed escape,” Garner said. “Studying at home also meant attending clinical rotations on both St. Croix and St. Thomas in which I was able to provide excellent medical care to the people of the Virgin Islands. There’s nothing better than being around your ‘own’ people.”
At the ceremony, both Garner and Paul were inducted into Pi Alpha – The National Honor Society for Physician Assistants. The award signifies their academic achievement and honors them for leadership, research, community/professional service and other related activities, according to the organization’s website.
All three plan to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam and begin their job search. Garner plans to work in Obstetrics/Gynecology, family medicine, emergency medicine or general surgery. Paul hopes to find a position in emergency medicine or internal medicine at home on St. Croix.
“I want to be able to strengthen my community’s healthcare system and care for individuals with whom I share a connection,” Paul said. “Completing the program has opened a major door for me and I am excited to enter this new chapter.”
Little is known about the fate of Barry’s St. Croix campus following this active hurricane season, the news release said.
“It is my prayer that they will not allow this past historic hurricane season of two Category 5 storms to abandon their vision of helping bridge the gap of healthcare provider shortage in the Virgin Islands through their PA program,” Garner said.