Graduate from Caribou finds University of New England a pathway to serving rural Maine

2 weeks ago

By Emme Demmendaal, UNE senior writer and editor

University of New England student Jillian Flynn has known for a long time that she wanted to work in rural health care.

“Health care has always been a part of me and what I was going to do; there was never really a question,” said Flynn, who is from Caribou and graduated from UNE with a master of science physician assistant on Saturday. 

While her connection to health care began early — influenced by her father’s career as a primary care doctor — figuring out what she wanted in health care took longer. 

While shadowing a physician assistant back home in Aroostook County, the most northern county in Maine, Flynn’s path into health care crystalized as she saw the level of impact a PA could have in rural health care and the community.

“I immediately knew that becoming a physician assistant was exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I saw how the PA role could make a significant impact by addressing the unique challenges and serving the underserved communities that are often overlooked.”

Jillian Flynn (M.S.PA.,’ 24) plans to use the skills she learned at UNE to work in underserved communities in Maine. (Courtesy of UNE)

Flynn said that deciding on UNE’s Physician Assistant program was easy because of the University’s dedication to rural health care education.

“I think it is really cool that UNE’s PA program not only has an emphasis on rural health — it’s in their mission statement,” she said, sharing that each student in the program is required to complete at least one rural clinical rotation. 

“It’s so important for all health care providers to understand rural medicine because … up here, you have to wear a lot of different hats, resources are different than (other places), and there are a lot of challenges for people to travel for care,” she said.

The PA program at UNE challenged Flynn, she said, but it also provided her with the interprofessional skills necessary to succeed. She pointed to UNE’s Interprofessional Simulation and Innovation Center — which provides students with opportunities to engage in team-based simulations that develop their critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills for professional practice — as one example.

“The opportunities we are given to provide interprofessional care and make those connections between specialties is huge and life-changing for our future patients,” she said. “And the interprofessional work and opportunities to provide care at UNE were unmatched, and they have prepared me to make a positive impact in the future of medicine,” Flynn said.

Flynn said that going back to learn in the community where she grew up has felt like a unique experience and credits UNE’s rural PA program track, a pathway that started in 2021 thanks to a grant from the Health Resources and Service Administration or HRSA. 

“It has been really rewarding to be back up here and give back to the community that helped raise me,” she said. 

Flynn’s rural clinical rotations have also provided her with a diverse range of experiences, from family medicine to surgery, and the opportunity to work with preceptors, who are experienced practitioners who provide supervision during clinical practice. 

Flynn said that the HRSA grant requirements played a significant role in applying her learning in real-world settings through community health care opportunities. One memorable experience was providing sports physicals for the community’s youth hockey players.

“Just connecting with the community again on the two things that I love — health care and hockey — was really rewarding,” Flynn said, emphasizing the importance of making health care a positive experience for young patients. “When a child has a negative experience with a health care provider, I believe that can carry onto adulthood. I was able to build rapport and discuss hockey before addressing medical concerns.”

Elizabeth Held, M.A., PA-C, assistant clinical professor and clinical coordinator at UNE, said that Flynn’s passion for serving rural communities and interprofessional education made her an example of what the rural PA track is all about.

“I know when Jillian graduates, she is going to be an excellent PA,” Held said. “She has really loved interactions with her patients, but her patients love her, too. I hear over and over and over again, ‘Oh, I can’t wait until she’s a PA. Maybe she’ll be practicing here.’”

Flynn said clinical rotations in rural Maine allowed her to reconnect with her roots and gain a better understanding of the challenges of rural medicine. Her experiences have prepared her to take her first step into rural health care at Great Oak Family Medicine in Oakland when she crosses the stage at graduation. 

“UNE provided me with incredible professors and classmates who pushed me to excel,” she said. “I am grateful for the support and education I received at UNE, which has helped me become a successful PA.”