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Forging Her Own Path: Liz Sieders, PA 

This article was written by Northeast Oregon Area Health Education Center (NEOAHEC). It is the intellectual property of NEOAHEC. This piece of writing in its entirety cannot be altered without explicit permission. NEOAHEC is supported by Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under U77HP03052.

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Liz Sieders, brought up in Pendleton, has been a Physician Associate (PA) at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center for seven years. Liz was in the first class of recipients for the Scholars for Healthy Oregon Initiative (SHOI), an award which covers tuition and fees for selected Oregonians admitted into eligible Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) programs. Liz has served on the NEOAHEC Board of Directors since 2019 and is a strong advocate for pathway programs. As someone who didn’t experience the benefits of the pathway, Liz is thrilled that her daughter, Natalie, had the chance to participate in NEOAHEC’s MedQuest.

The path to becoming a PA wasn’t straightforward for Liz. As a child, Liz knew she wanted to go into healthcare. She finds fulfillment in helping people, and has always been fascinated by anatomy, which she first discovered growing up hunting and fishing in eastern Oregon. Healthcare felt like a natural way to combine her interests. After obtaining her undergraduate degree in Biology from The College of Idaho, she returned to Pendleton, working at Interpath Laboratory in the microbiology and phlebotomy departments. She wanted her career to include more interaction with patients, so she enrolled in the nursing program at Walla Walla Community College.

Despite doing well, she dropped out, deciding nursing wasn’t what she was looking for either. When she reflects on this part of her life, Liz wishes she’d had access to more resources to help her decide which career in healthcare was right for her. At this point, she was considering a career as either a physician associate (PA) or a nurse practitioner (NP), so she searched the two careers online, comparing the job descriptions and educational requirements. She struggled to find detailed information about being a PA. There were only two in Pendleton at the time, so Liz called one of them and asked if she could shadow her. Liz remembers, “She was very supportive of my journey. I actually rotated with her later when I was doing my clinicals, too. She's been a great mentor figure in the community for me.”

Like many others, Liz only applied to OHSU. At the time, it was the only school in the state that offered the Physician Associate Program, and she didn’t want to have to move her home and family for her career. Upon acceptance, she was excited to be chosen as a SHOI recipient. This award meant that Liz wouldn’t have to move to a city with higher wages in order to afford her education. She says, “I didn't have to make a decision between paying off student loans and working in my desired location. I could do both, and I could really design the career and support the community that I wanted, and that’s everything to me.” Without the SHOI scholarship, Liz knows her path into healthcare would’ve been much more difficult. She continues, “If I’d had to move, on top of graduating, finding a new job, and getting my feet under me, that would’ve been a lot, and maybe I wouldn't have been so content with my career.”

Liz started her position as a PA at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center immediately following graduation from OHSU in 2017. She grows excited talking about the breadth of services delivered at the facility, “There are so many different specialists available to us right there, so collaboration is just easy, and that’s really to the benefit of the patients.” Liz works with a small team comprised of a nurse, a medical assistant, a referral coordinator, and a community health representative. She describes her interactions with these colleagues as a “beautiful kind of dance we do every day.”

One of the things that makes this career at Yellowhawk continuously appealing to Liz is the ability to live in Pendleton. It’s not just a rural setting with open nature and outdoor recreation. It’s more intangible than that. She says, “Everyone's looking out for everyone else, whether they know you or not, and generally people are holding doors open or giving you a smile or a wave. It's a spirit, and I just respond really positively to that.” She also loves that Pendleton has great citywide event coordination, including concerts, art shows, and of course, the Pendleton Round-Up. “It's small, but there's still culture here.”

Liz didn’t learn about NEOAHEC until she was already practicing, so she’s in a great position to compare her healthcare career journey with that of students who have access to the nonprofit’s resources. The feature of NEOAHEC’s programming that Liz is the most excited about is the opportunity to job shadow. As Liz explains, “It’s so important to know what you will be doing on a daily basis and really understand what you're devoting your time and money and energy and life to so you can be sure it's the right option for you. You just don't know until you're in it.”

Liz’s daughter, Natalie, participated in MedQuest the same year Liz joined the board of directors. Liz was thrilled when she learned about all the resources and opportunities the camp provided, including connecting students with mentors and job shadowing. Even though Natalie already knew she was interested in healthcare, MedQuest allowed her to develop deeper understanding about the field. Liz recalls, “She definitely came back more aware of other options and opportunities in healthcare, which I think is important because there's a lot of careers that you don't hear about that are so valuable.” In addition to refining her career trajectory, MedQuest gave her a chance to experiment with dressing for the part. Liz fondly remembers going shopping with Natalie to buy slacks for her daughter to wear during MedQuest. Seeing yourself as the person you want to be is part of manifesting the goal. Liz describes it as “the food for feeling and projecting the role.” MedQuest was full of heartfelt moments that even included a few tears when they parted ways on that first day of camp, not unlike the first day of kindergarten. But as Liz now recalls, laughing, her daughter quickly acclimated to camp and wanted nothing to do with her mom by the next day. MedQuest allows students to visualize themselves in a career and further inform the steps they take to reach their goals.

Liz found the place she needed to be. She forged a path to the career she wanted. It was difficult and messy at times to find her way, and she wishes she’d had the support of NEOAHEC—it would have streamlined the job shadowing process and saved her time and frustration. Liz appreciates that AHEC organizations exist, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to further NEOAHEC’s mission by serving on the board of directors. Her values are reaffirmed every time she hears a story about NEOAHEC’s impact. She’s proud of all the program participants and proud that her daughter is included among them.

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If you are determined enough, you can forge a path to a rural health career. NEOAHEC should be your companion on this journey.