Daniel Shonnard enjoys skiing with his family in the Upper Peninsula.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded Concordia's physician's assistant studies program a $1.48 million grant over five years to support students who opt to participate in rural clinical experiences. CUAA is one of only seven universities nationwide to receive this grant.

Daniel Shonnard will be the first to admit that small-town living isn’t for everyone. However, for him, there’s no place preferable.

Shonnard grew up in the 876-person unincorporated community of Chassell, Michigan, located in the Upper Peninsula. In lieu of shopping trips or restaurant outings, Shonnard regularly engaged himself in outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, or camping. His family home, situated at the base of Portage Lake and within a 10-minute hike of a waterfall, offered a serene setting.

“I just like small towns,” Shonnard said. “I like them way more than big cities. It’s a slower pace of life. I like the culture more and I like the sense of community.”

CUAA provides stipends for rural clinical experiences

It’s no surprise then that Shonnard, who has his sights set on becoming a physician assistant, selected a program that emphasizes rural health care opportunities. Concordia University Ann Arbor’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program is just over a year old, but it already has numerous affiliation agreements in place with clinical sites throughout the state, many of which are located in rural settings.

As an added bonus, students who choose to enroll in CUAA’s PA program will be provided stipends to offset costs if they participate in a rural clinical experience. Concordia received word this month that it is one of only seven institutions of higher education nationwide to be awarded a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant: Primary Care Training and Enhancement—Physician Assistant Rural Training Program.

The federal funding, which totals $1.48 million over five years, will grant each student a stipend of almost $2,150 per month for a four-week rotation or $5,306 for an eight-week rotation. Additionally, the clinical site receives a $500 stipend. The clinical rotation must take place in a designated Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) or Medically Underserved Area (MUA). HPSA and MUA calculations take into consideration an area’s population-to-provider ratios, as well as what percentage of the population falls below the federal poverty level.

Rural health care worker shortage

The HRSA award underscores the urgency of the need for rural health care workers.

While only 14 percent of Americans live in rural areas, rural communities represent nearly two-thirds of primary care HPSAs in the country. The concern is compounded by a shortage of physicians who are willing to serve in rural areas. A 2019 study found that, over a 15-year period, the number of medical students from rural backgrounds (a strong indicator of a person’s willingness to serve in a rural setting) declined 28 percent. An estimated 14,858 additional health care providers are needed to eliminate the shortage across the country.

Many feel that PAs can play an important role in filling the shortages, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the profession to grow 31 percent by 2028. Furthermore, PAs tend to be more likely to serve in a rural area. Currently, about 16 percent of the nation’s 131,000 PAs practice in non-metro or completely rural areas.

While recruitment of individuals who grew up in rural areas is important, research also shows that exposure to rural clinical experiences can help, says CUAA’s PA Director Jackie Kazik, MA, PA-C, DFAAPA.

A rewarding experience

Kazik, a decorated PA with more than 37 years of experience in the field has worked in a wide variety of professional settings. She maintains that her rural clinical experience was her favorite, however. Early in her career, she served for eight weeks on a Native American reservation in northern Wisconsin. Within that time, she was asked to flex her expertise for a gamut of concerns.

“On the reservation clinic, I had no shortage of people I was impacting. They were incredibly grateful too,” Kazik said. “For most of us in health care, we’d like to believe that we’re making a difference in people’s lives. With rural care, I felt like it was all the more apparent that I was.”

Soon Shonnard will start his own rewarding experience, and thanks to CUAA’s HRSA grant, he’ll receive a stipend to do so.

Next week, Shonnard will begin a clinical rotation with Lake Linden Family Health Center, which is located about a half hour north of his hometown. In June, he’ll start a second rural clinical rotation in Houghton, also in the Upper Peninsula.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s something that, while it will be difficult to dive into, I trust it’ll prepare me well for my later clinics,” Shonnard said. “There are a lot of different groups that need better access to health care, but based on my background it’s just easier for me to relate to the patients in rural areas and to know the issues they might be facing since I have something in common with them.”

Learn more

You can apply to CUAA’s PA program here. Those with specific questions about the HRSA grant opportunity may contact Kazik at Jacqueline.Kazik@cuaa.edu.

This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $1.48 million. The above contents are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by HRSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit HRSA.gov.

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Ann Arbor and Wisconsin. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

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