Patel Prospers in PA Program
Ripal Patel, a Physician Assistant graduate student in the spring semester of her didactic year (focused on classroom and laboratory work), was born and raised in Vadodara, Gujarat, India. The state is among the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers in the country, producing one third of its medicines, according to a 2021 article in The Times of India.
Statistics aside, the city is known as the Sanskari Nagari and the Kala Nagari of India. These are translated roughly to mean the ‘Cultural City’ or the 'City of Art’ respectively. These monikers together make a reference to its vibrant cultural, artistic, and architectural traditions in relation to its rapid growth and industrialization.
As a student, Patel was familiarized with works such as the Bhagavad Gita and other such texts relating to the teachings of Krishna. One proverb in particular has had a great effect on her life. “Do your karma and don’t expect any kind of fruits,” Ripal said, as she reflected in the PA student lounge of the O’Neill Center for Healthy Families. “You have to keep trying. Don’t look for success. Just try and try and you will get there.”
A far cry from a call to aimless ambition, the first lines of her Marywood story brought the attitudes provoked by this quote from her childhood into stark relief against the stakes facing her education. Scrawled on a Post-it note, she kept on her desk the words, “There’s no backup plan.” This message greeted her each time she sat down to her work. While these are the sentiments that begin her Marywood story, Patel’s journey starts much earlier than the day she wrote that message on her Post-it note. It began well before she ever lived in the U.S., let alone Pennsylvania. Her story began around 1995. Patel was only a child when her aunt filed the immigration paperwork on behalf of her family that would bring them to the United States.
“I was told, ‘you’re going to be an American,’” Patel said, a smile at the memory stretched across her face. “I was telling all my friends, ‘I’m going to be an American.’”
Time passed, and her excitement at the prospect began to fade as year upon year ended without hearing from the immigration office.
“By the time I got into high school, I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m going, because it’s already been so many years–it doesn’t look possible,’” Patel said. Her life moved on from that initial filing. Now around 18 years old, she was beginning to lay the groundwork for her professional life. She had decided she wanted to work in healthcare, but did not want to be a doctor, partially because of the length of medical programs and partially because India’s reservation system only ensured so many seats for each member of its social caste. Even though Patel chose not to attend medical school, opting instead for an education in pharmacy, the reservation system still affected her program selection.
“I never got into the program I wanted, because I was considered in the ‘other’ category. I was considered more the generalized category, so I was not able to get in, even though I had good grades,” Patel said.
The reservation system currently enforced in India is an attempt to dismantle and eliminate the social norms of the prior-held caste system, which was in force for more than 100 years. This new system works to provide educational and economic opportunities to castes that were historically discriminated against. On the other hand, this system also impedes merit-based entrance into academic institutions, as quotas dictate that only a certain amount is permitted from each category.
Patel resolved to attend a local pharmaceutical school, started seeing the man she would later marry, and began planning the rest of her adulthood, factoring out the odds of being permitted to immigrate.
In 2008, as she was starting her pharmaceutical training, Patel and her family received a call from the immigration office that changed her life forever. Immigrating to the U.S. in 2009 to Parsippany, New Jersey, Patel and her family undertook the challenge facing many new immigrants–starting over. This included gaining a mastery of a language she had only really practiced as a school student and finding ways to help her family support itself in the present, before she could even begin to concern herself with securing its future.
Her first job in America was working at a Taco Bell to save money to eventually work on attaining further education. The first step in Patel’s journey was an ambitious one. She enrolled at Morse County College in the same semester that she moved to Parsippany, so she wouldn’t lose time in pursuing the degree she had previously attempted in India. This was no easy task. The school only provided her with six English Second Language classes, and Patel was expected to attend in-person classes, even though she did not have a driver’s license.
Largely reliant on public transportation, family assistance, and her proximity to her school to attend classes, she also took on the challenge of entirely funding her own education. Of the six ESL classes, Patel failed one and was stopped in her tracks by the experience.
“It was the point when I said, ‘No, I can’t do this,’ and that was when I kind of gave up,” she said. However, in the course of hearing Patel’s story, one learns that failing does not come easy to her and quitting is entirely out of her vocabulary.
About six months later, she had come to terms with the fact that shirking the opportunity of an education was not an option for her.
“When you fail, you have a lot of anxiety behind you. It doesn't go anywhere, and, even on your happiest day, you can still hear ‘You’re a failure,’ in the back of your mind…I realized I had to do something,” she said. “In America, you can work as a laborer your whole life and make good money, or you can educate yourself and actually make really good money.”
This time Patel became more familiar with the grants and scholarship opportunities available to her. Starting her education over yet again, Patel decided to enroll in a medical assistant program. She was able to get good grades and continued to work around her class schedule. She graduated in 2012 and returned with her family to India for a visit. While in her home city, Patel was able to reconnect with her boyfriend from before her move. They had agreed to a long distance relationship, and Patel couldn’t be sure when she would be returning next.
“I was like okay this is it. I think I need to marry him first and then the rest of the life decisions would be made after that,” Patel said.
The union was met with mixed feelings by Patel’s family, who held more traditional views regarding marriage. Returning to the United States at the end of her stay, Patel would not see her husband again in-person for another two years, when he would finally gain permission to join her permanently in the United States. With the prospect of advancing her career before her, Patel moved to Scranton to find work in her field, only to encounter another setback.
“I could not find a job,” Patel said. “I was applying, but they [employers in Scranton] were seeing my diploma from New Jersey and were wondering why I wanted to work here. Also, there wasn’t an internship part of the medical assistant program I attended, so that didn’t help me.”
Patel returned to Parsippany after six months of attempting to find work in Scranton. She was able to return to the area permanently after getting a job at the Amazon warehouse in Hazleton.
“It was the highest pay I could find at the time,” she said. “I worked there, and then I worked another three days at my husband’s uncle’s shop where I was staying in Scranton. So, for six months, I was working seven days a week, because I had to save money.”
Now 22 years old, incapable of gaining experience in her chosen field, and working to maintain an exhausting work schedule, Patel began weighing the options in front of her.
Bolstered by her husband and coworkers’ support for her decision, Patel applied for and later enrolled at Luzerne County Community College for their Medical Assistant program. Through her time at the school, Patel continued to work and later found employment as a medical assistant. The ESL class she passed this time gave her a newfound confidence in her capacity to speak and write in English.
Emerging from this second program with more confidence and with a better prospect for employment, Patel’s journey was far from over. Joined in the United States by her husband and now the mother of a young child, Patel had another opportunity to further her career in healthcare. She began taking courses offered as a benefit to employees at the clinic where she worked and became familiar with the roles physicians assistants fill in the healthcare industry.
“I realized this was something that was really interesting beyond what I normally do as a medical assistant,” Patel said. She sat down with her husband and began to work out the details regarding her transition to becoming a PA student. Still working full time, she began taking courses at Luzerne County Community College For two years, she prepared herself and her transcript to transfer into one of the multiple PA programs offered throughout the region.
“I kept going to LC to finish up all my pre-reqs. At the time, I was following Misercordia’s schedule for the PA program. It was a six-year program. At the clinic, I saw a lot of our students were coming from Marywood. They told me that they had a five-year program and that they could take transfer students.”
This facet of Marywood’s program stood out to Patel, who had come to expect that five-year programs required PA and pre-PA students to be attendees of that particular university and program for the full five years. During this time, Patel had also been rejected by Kings College because her high school diploma was from India.
“I don’t think that should be an excuse for me not to go to the program that I wanted, and I feel like when something resists me, when someone says no–I try very hard for it, then I was like, ‘No, no, no, you can’t tell me no.’”
Working nights and going to school during the standard undergraduate schedule, Patel successfully managed her course load for two years before finally gaining acceptance to Marywood’s program days before Christmas in 2019.
“I was just so overwhelmed and relieved,” Patel said, a surge of emotion pulsing through her voice. She chuckled at the memory. “I was able to get in and be like, ‘Phew, that was the hardest part,’ you know–but no, just wait for that.”
Transferring to Marywood’s campus in the summer of 2020, Patel brought with her 90 credits from Luzerne and still had a considerable number of credits to make up in order to catch up with members of the PA program who had gone to Marywood throughout their undergraduate education.
“I was told ‘Oh you can do two years. Get it done in two years, if you want to because it is a lot of credits. It’s hard,” she said. “My son was one or two when I started school. I have a monthly calendar, and I put a note in there thatI wanted to graduate by 2025. So I gave myself ten years.”
With her goal in sight, Patel doubled down on her efforts.
“I ended up finishing 42 credits in one year,” she said. “Not all of them were taken here. During the intercession, I ended up taking a class at a different university so that way I could achieve the goal and have the hours I needed available for my clinical experience.”
Now on track to graduate after she completes her rotation next year, Patel’s advice for nontraditional students is simply, “Don’t give up. Sometimes it feels like, yes, everything is falling apart, and you always want to think there’s a backup plan. For me, I did not have any backup plan. I kept a note on my desk that said, ‘There’s no back-up plan and you have to win,’ because failure isn’t the way you get anywhere. You also need someone who can say, ‘Yes, you can do it.’ If you don’t have that person, it’s a lot more challenging. When I left India in 2009, I felt sad, stressed, depressed…I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere…but you have to keep trying. And don’t look for success, just try and try, and you will get there.”