A milestone year for PA program just one highlight of CPHS graduation

College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences graduates 230 students in pharmacy, general sciences, clinical research, public health, pharmaceutical sciences, nursing and physician assistant practice Friday

It was roughly 13 years ago when Campbell launched its Master of Physician Assistant Practice program, a precursor to its medical school two years later and a stepping stone to the University’s emergence as a leader in health care education in North Carolina in the decade that followed.

Campbell’s College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences celebrated the 10th graduating class of its PA program on Friday during its Spring Commencement ceremony inside the Pope Convocation Center’s Gore Arena. Roughly 180 students in pharmacy, general sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, clinical research, nursing and public health joined the milestone cohort of 50 PA graduates in a ceremony filled with new beginnings and touching endings. 

Dr. Jeff Mercer, in his first spring ceremony as dean for the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences, took time in his welcome address to offer gratitude to Betty Lynn W. Johnson, director of Campbell’s PA program since 2018 and a significant part of the program since arriving in 2011 (the year of its launch). Laura Gerstner will take over the role of chair and program director on June 1 of this summer.

Dr. Jeff Mercer awards a diploma during his first spring commencement as dean of the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences.

“After multiple degrees from Campbell and 13 years of dedicated service to the institution and her students, Mrs. Johnson will be stepping away from the program,” Mercer said. “She is not one to seek the spotlight, but as I’ve come to know, it seems that others certainly shine brighter when she is around.

“She’s going to hate me for that,” Mercer quipped after the applause. 

In his first commencement weekend since announcing his upcoming retirement in 2025, Campbell President Dr. J. Bradley Creed said he could very well run into former Camels in the health care field after he steps down. 

I have a lot of confidence in you and the education that you received, that if I ever need a skilled health care professional, I can trust my care to you,” he said. “Hopefully not this afternoon, but sometime in the future.”

In keeping with the PA theme, Emily Adams — chief executive officer for the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants — delivered the keynote address for Friday’s ceremony. In her role at the state level and as a registered lobbyist, Adams has advocated for PA practice rights in North Carolina — successfully advocating for waivers during the COVID-19 pandemic and leading efforts to re-establish the organization’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee.

Emily Adams, CEO of the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants, delivers the commencement address.

Adams said she’s been to Campbell several times and is always struck by the University’s “sense of connection, care, camaraderie and community.” The called graduation one of the few moments in life where past, present and future all collide. She asked the graduates to close their eyes, absorb the gravity of the moment and take it in and announced them “ready” to enter the exciting field of health care. 

“Health care continues to change and evolve, shaped by exponentially growing medical knowledge and technology. And when we talk about health care, we often bring up the many challenges,” she said. “But I have a deep hope as I stand before and look at each of you, that when they talk about addressing health care staffing shortages, I see so many eager faces ready to join the ranks.

“When they talk about burnout, I see professionals who have developed and honed their resilience skills.

“When they talk about improving patient experience, I see providers who are servant leaders training in patient-centric care. When they talk about building strong health care teams, I see individuals who are trained in an interprofessional model and ready to work together in the service of their patients.

“And when I think about addressing health equity, I see inclusive leaders who are ready to address the social determinants of health care.”

Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduate William Passner — who spent much of his Campbell career under the Gaylord outfit — holds up his mascot crown as he walks the stage at commencement on Friday.

In closing, Adams offered advice about not only caring for patients, but caring for their own physical and mental health. She asked the graduates to lean on each other and reach out when they have questions or need assistance.

“I’ve observed that Campbell graduates are natural leaders and advocates, whether it’s for their patients, their volunteer projects, their task forces or their communities,” Adams said.

Graduate Katie Heffner was among the 48 students who earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree on Friday, and she said her favorite moment during her Campbell journey was learning of her acceptance into the nursing program as a sophomore. 

“This impacted my experience, because all of my hard work had finally paid off, and I was excited that my dreams were coming true,” Heffner said. “Graduating college is a huge milestone — it gives you a foundation to build your career and life on and provides people with the skills needed to be successful in the world.”  

Her classmate, Mackenzie Helms, said she was excited to apply what she’s learned over the last four years while caring for her future patients. 

“I’ve worked toward this goal for many years,” she said. “Graduating from college to me means all my hard work was worth it. I get to finally work in my desired field and begin my journey as a nurse.”

Betty Lynn Johnson hoods a graduate in her final spring commencement at Campbell University as director of the Master of Physician Assistant Practice program.