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After four years at West Point and 10 years of service in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot, Robert Bender wasn’t sure what the next phase of his career might look like. However, his twin brother is a physician assistant (PA) and introduced Bender to the profession. As he approached the end of his career in the Army, Bender discovered UNC’s PA program and its veteran-friendly environment. He applied, interviewed, and determined Chapel Hill to be a great fit for the next chapter of his life.

Starting PA School in a Pandemic

Bender met his classmates on campus in January 2020, only to be separated in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group did not have the opportunity to see each other until that summer, and contact was modified and limited. This first year of the PA program is didactic in nature, and most of the lectures and work were completed online as the pandemic continued.

The second year of the program consists of clinical rotations, and Bender and his classmates jumped headfirst into a healthcare setting that had been flipped on its head thanks to COVID. “We had the opportunity to help administer vaccinations during the first month of our clinical year, which was very rewarding,” says Bender. “The fact that we were exposed to dealing with COVID in a healthcare setting was challenging but also helped us have a good idea as to what to expect after graduation.”

Emergency Medicine Residency at Johns Hopkins

Bender graduated alongside his classmates in December 2021 as the fifth graduating class of UNC’s Physician Assistant Studies program. He was then accepted into an 18-month Emergency Medicine Residency Program at Johns Hopkins, a highly competitive and sought-after position.

Within the residency program Bender spends much of his time learning and practicing emergency medicine while also gaining exposure to individual specialties like neurology, orthopedics, radiology and others – an opportunity not found in standard post-graduate PA jobs. Bender was attracted to the residency due in part to his interest in practicing emergency medicine and for the chance to continue didactic learning throughout the program.

“After completing this program, I hope to find a job as a PA and emergency department provider in a rural setting, and I’d like to give back through volunteer work using my PA skillset,” says Bender. “I feel very confident in my skills thanks to the education and training I received at UNC. I and others in my class wondered how the pandemic might affect our education and ability to pass our certifying exam and work as PAs, but our program did a great job preparing us despite the challenges.”

The Physician Assistant Studies program is one of seven divisions within the Department of Health Sciences, housed in UNC’s School of Medicine. The PA program has a mission-driven focus centralized around the recruitment of veteran applicants and encourages veterans from all areas of the U.S. Armed Forces who have served in a medical capacity to apply to the program.