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Jennifer Bidwell is a first-year student in the Physician Assistant Studies program who grew up experiencing the effects of a lack of health care in rural communities. As a student in the class of 2020, she will be equipped to return to a rural environment and to rely on her military training to care for those in need. Her non-traditional path to PA school led her to the UNC School of Medicine’s newly launched PA program, housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences.

After high school, Bidwell received an ROTC scholarship to enlist in the U.S. Navy. After receiving her degree in cell and developmental biology from the University of Kansas, she commissioned as an officer in the Navy, where her tasks included launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, using surface-to-air detection, and working with combat systems. During her five years in the Navy, Bidwell traveled the globe, beginning in Virginia; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and through deployments in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and in the Persian Gulf.

“I did a lot of deployments in very short succession,” Bidwell said. “I really enjoyed being part of a team, just being able to work with people in high-pressure situations.”

Following a brief career in traumatic brain injury research and toxicology, Bidwell pursued her master’s degree in cell and developmental biology and worked in a graduate lab for two years. While Bidwell enjoyed the lab experience, she realized she wanted to pursue a career path beyond research. So, she became an emergency medical technician or EMT.

“I loved everything about it,” Bidwell said. “I loved having a partner and having a team again.”

A medical issue led her to discover the PA profession.

“I really got to know more of what a role of a PA does, and I thought this was something I would really enjoy,” Bidwell said. The experience spurred Bidwell to become a paramedic and apply to PA schools across the country. Upon acceptance to the program at UNC-Chapel Hill she and her family, including two young sons, decided it aligned well with Bidwell’s ambitions.

Paul Chelminski, MD, MPH, FACP, and director of the PA program, said Bidwell epitomizes the values and ideals of the PA program at the UNC School of Medicine.

“The Navy was Jennifer’s first pathway to opportunity and service,” Chelminski said. “Our PA program is now proud to accept the handoff.”

Bidwell, 39, is above the national average age for PA students of 26; Chelminski said the support from the UNC School of Medicine is essential to recruit non-traditional students, as the program enables students like Bidwell to continue a pledge to serve their country through health care.

“Opportunity does not time out, and it does not sunset at the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Hospitals,” Chelminski said. “We must be worthy of the investment that the military has made in Jennifer and other remarkable people who have served.”

Bidwell’s upbringing in Lebo, Kansas, allowed her to see the impact rural health care providers can have in a community.

“It’s a really big part of keeping communities together,” Bidwell said. She compared rural areas to serving in the military; both can be austere environments.

“In the military, you’re never going to have something perfect; it’s always going to be you having to adapt or overcome whatever situation you are presented with,” Bidwell said. “In a community that doesn’t necessarily have all the resources that big hospitals have, it’s ‘how can I do the best with what I have?'”

Bidwell said medicine is about service, and she hopes to be a future PA provider working toward common goals for patients, much like she did in the military.

“Everybody makes a contribution,” she said. “You have a lot of people with a lot of different backgrounds, and you come together to make contributions, in your own way, to help a team effort.”

Bidwell is the 2018 recipient of the UNC Physician Assistant Scholarship, made possible by Mary Susan Kirk Fulghum, MD, and the late James Fulghum III, MD.

The scholarship, Bidwell explained, was instrumental in her decision to attend the PA program at the UNC School of Medicine.

“I want to go into rural medicine somewhere, and I want to do family practice,” Bidwell said. “I’ll be able to do that because I just won’t have the burden of loans that I would have had otherwise.”

Bidwell is one of seven veterans in the PA class of 2020; the number of veterans students is eight times the national average for PA students nationwide.