Turning Passion into Practice: A Glimpse into UNC’s Inaugural Physician Assistant Class
“The children are the biggest reason that I do this,” says Eulalia Barajas-Graham. “I got into this field because of my passion for educating children and families and helping them make better choices.”
Eulalia will graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Allied Health Sciences Physician Assistant (PA) program in December of this year. She is among the first class to graduate from the program developed four years ago through a partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC and the Department of Allied Health Sciences within the UNC School of Medicine.
As Eulalia continues her journey to becoming a PA, she reflects on what has brought her here.
Raised in Fuquay-Varina, Eulalia was born to migrant workers. “My parents worked on farms in the area,” she says. “I even worked on my neighbor’s farm for a couple years myself.” This was during a time when there were very few Hispanics in the area. Eulalia and her brother were the only Hispanics at their elementary school.
Education was a top priority for the Barajas family. After primary schooling, Eulalia attended the University of North Carolina at Pembroke to study journalism. She was the first from her family to attend college. During her time at UNC-Pembroke, Eulalia took a job as a debt collector at a local bank and when she graduated in 2004, she was offered a full-time position with the bank.
Shortly after graduating, Eulalia met her husband, a local PA, and decided to stay in Robeson County. Located in the southeast region of the state, it is home to the Native American Lumbee tribe, which her husband is a member. One superlative hit home for Eulalia: Robeson County is also ranked as the unhealthiest county in the state.
Move to Robeson County
“The area is very old-fashioned and not very educated,” she explains. “Most people don’t venture out of the area.” Eulalia knew she had to make some changes in her community.
“I remember thinking, how do we change the community?” Eulalia shares. “Start with the children.” Eulalia did this is a number of ways:
- She signed up to be a soccer coach for her town’s first league in 2008. As a coach, she helped parents and players understand the importance of healthy eating habits and exercise.
- She began competing in triathlons with a few other locals which then prompted her to help organize a youth triathlon called ‘Tri-Warriors Triathlon’. The goal is to encourage exercise and to teach local children how to swim and bike.
- The program started in 2010 and participation increased by 18% in the first year. Eulalia’s daughter will be competing this fall.
A combination of her husband’s passion for his career as a PA and her passion for supporting the health and wellbeing of her community led Eulalia to make a career change. After 10 years in banking, Eulalia took a leap of faith and started as a medical assistant in 2013 at Robeson Pediatrics.
Journey to PA
After about two years, Eulalia began applying to PA programs, including one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who would have their inaugural class in January of 2016.
“UNC appealed to me because of its reputation and I liked that it was associated with a medical school program,” she says. “When I went in for my interview, they exuded confidence about the program and it made me feel confident about the program as well.”
In addition to the connection with the UNC Department of Allied Health Sciences within the School of Medicine, UNC collaborated with Blue Cross NC to make the program happen.
“UNC and Blue Cross NC have the same vision—to fill the gap for medical providers and to serve the under served,” says Eulalia. “I am grateful to Blue Cross NC for envisioning the future that physician assistants will have in the coming years.”
Other than being a brand new PA program, UNC’s inaugural class is unique in that nine of their students are military veterans. Eulalia shared that the veterans she trained with are excellent teachers, showing other classmates efficient ways to master skills they had learned in the field.
In addition to fellow students being supportive, Eulalia shares that her instructors always went the extra mile to ensure their students’ success. “The amount of support that we have had is incredible,” she says. “Everyone is so helpful and really wants to make sure that everyone is learning as much as they can and understanding all the material.”
Eulalia recently finished her family clinical rotation in her home county and shares that healthy eating habits and taking medication properly were two major issues for her patients.
“Coming back home and doing my clinical and just talking to my patients has really opened my eyes,” she says. “Treating patients is what you do but when you live in an area like this, explaining why and how is very important. You have to take the extra time to make sure they understand how to take their medications and be patient and compassionate.”
As her program is coming to an end, Eulalia shares what is so rewarding about what she does.
“Whenever you would have a patient follow-up and actually listen to you, that’s a wonderful feeling,” she says. “But I tell them that they did this by themselves.”
With graduation in December fast approaching, Eulalia shares what’s next for her.
“My passion is pediatrics, but as I have evolved through different rotations, I have found that I like to care for adults too,” she explains. “I definitely plan to stay in the area. I have built a life and a family here and I truly believe that I can make a difference here.”