Diverse backgrounds common in Upstate’s PA program

SUNY Upstate Physician Assistant

The PA Class of 2014 running group at Upstate: (L-R) Lucas Maliwaki, Nicole Cortese, Chelsey Wallace, Katie Bubnack, Liz Schwennker, Joel Miller, Matt Cook, Carol Conolly, Chris Littmann, Ryan Connolly.

The 34 students in Upstate’s Class of 2014 Physician Assistant program come from such diverse backgrounds, it’s hard to say who’s a “traditional” or “non-traditional” student.

Their resumes include: Army medic, nurse, figure skating coach, physician, medical technologist, surgical technician, EMT, respiratory therapist, athletic trainer, certified nursing assistant, pharmaceutical sales rep, endoscopic assistant, etc.

One member of the PA Class of 2014 is Carol Conolly, a former Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analyst and a 1990 graduate of Stanford University.  At Stanford, Carol was a 3-time All-American distance runner who qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10,000 meters.

SUNY Upstate Physician Assistant program

Carol Conolly, a student in Upstate's Physician Assistant master's degree program, was an All-America runner at Stanford University and qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials in the 10,000 meters.

Carol, 45, said the years have broadened her perspective on life, and have taught her the importance of appreciating the journey – not just the destination.

“Being a PA student is challenging, but it is also a great privilege — a privilege to dissect the human body and a privilege to learn from some of the best teachers in the world,” Carol said. “I am also very fortunate to be sharing this experience with my classmates, who are all very thoughtful, intelligent and interesting people.  My classmates and I have a great deal of respect for each other, because we know how hard we are all working to succeed here. Yes, PA school is challenging, but I remind myself to enjoy each and every day of this once in a lifetime experience.”

To help unwind from the daily grind of the 27-month master’s degree program, Carol enjoys taking time out from studying to run each day.

“Some of my classmates and I would get together once or twice a week to run, and that was a great way to get to know each other better,” she said. “Sometimes we would hash over school stuff, but we also had some good laughs too, like the time when one of the group kept slowly picking up the pace until we all started sprinting like crazy, pretending to be racing.  I didn’t last long in that sprint because it’s impossible to laugh and sprint at the same time!”

In 1988, as a sophomore at Stanford, Carol, then Carol Gray, qualified for the Olympic Trails in the 10,000 (6.2 miles). Her time of 33 minutes, 13 seconds in the NCAA Division I championships that year still ranks third all-time in Stanford history.

As an undergraduate, Carol had her eye on medical school, but her rigorous year-round training schedule conflicted with many pre-med classes.  And since she needed to keep her athletic scholarship to afford Stanford, she made that a priority and shifted her academic path to applied earth sciences. She managed to stay on track with running while also winning two academic awards.

“Stanford was a very stimulating environment because I wasn’t the smartest or the fastest,” Carol said. “My classmates and teammates helped push me to grow academically and athletically.  Being at Upstate is similar in this regard.  My classmates and I motivate and challenge each other in a very positive way.”

After Stanford, Carol worked as a GIS Principal Investigator for the Geological Survey at Indiana University, and then as a GIS Analyst for Chazen Engineering in Glens Falls, N.Y.  However, her original interest in physiology and the idea of becoming a clinician stayed with her.

While in Glens Falls, Carol completed all of the PA prerequisite coursework at SUNY Adirondack while working as an “on call” GIS Analyst for Chazen Engineering and also working as a part-time phlebotomist at Glens Falls Hospital. (Requirements for admission to the PA program include 1,000 hours of clinical experience.)

“It wasn’t easy trying to balance two part time jobs as well as part time school, but my proximity to Glens Falls Hospital and SUNY Adirondack gave me a unique opportunity to pursue my original career interest in medicine,” she said. “When you really want something, you don’t focus on how hard it is to get there, you just do it.”

Carol is about to begin her final year of the PA program, which she’ll spend working with supervising physicians and physician assistants at Glens Falls Hospital and Hudson Headwaters Health Network. She’s glad she came to Upstate, and has high praise for the PA program and the faculty.

SUNY Upstate gross anatomy lab

Physician Assistant students in Upstate's Anatomy Lab, with associate professor Susan Stearns, PhD. From left, Shanamae Victor, Dr. Stearns, Christopher Littmann and Stacey Cook. Photo by Robert Mescavage.

“Not all PA schools have a cadaver lab, but Upstate does, and that was an incredible learning experience,” Carol said. “Plus, the faculty are very knowledgeable, approachable and dedicated to helping students succeed.  The head of our program, Sandra Banas, is not only a great teacher, but she is also a great advocate for her students.  She has helped secure very generous student scholarships.  Yes, I feel very fortunate to be here at Upstate.”


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