Dr. Eric Sauers, dean of the A.T. Still University program in Santa Maria.
Dr. Eric Sauers, dean of the A.T. Still University program in Santa Maria, speaks during a meet-and-greet event last month. He also gave an update to the Santa Maria City Council on Tuesday. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A new class of medical students will begin the path toward physician assistant careers this month as A.T. Still University’s Central Coast program enters its second year and looks to expand.

ATSU leaders recently celebrated the arrival of the Santa Maria site’s first dean, Dr. Eric Sauers. It also sent its inaugural class into assorted communities for clinical experience and will greet the second group of students.

“This is just an academic administrator’s dream. It’s a pretty rare opportunity in higher education to build a whole new campus,” said Sauers, who had been a faculty member since 2000 at ATSU’s Mesa, Arizona, campus and began his job as dean of the Santa Maria-based College for Healthy Communities this summer.

Sauers earned his bachelor of science degree from Seattle Pacific University and graduated with the inaugural class for ATSU’s Master of Science in Sports Health Care program in 1997. He earned his doctorate from Oregon State University.

On Tuesday night, he gave an update to the Santa Maria City Council on ATSU’s new College for Healthy Communities, which occupies about 25,000 square feet of the CoastHills Credit Union building on East Betteravia Road.

“Our mission is really centrally focused on producing health care professionals who are committed to serving the underserved,” Sauers said. “That’s really what we do. Those are the kinds of programs we create. That’s the way we educate and train our students.”

ATSU started 130 years ago in Missouri and later added the Arizona site with about 4,000 students at its locations. The founder developed the whole body approach leading to osteopathic medicine with a focus on mind, body and spirit.

Last fall, ATSU and community members gathered to celebrate the first class of students working toward earning master’s degrees and becoming physician assistants in the two-year program.

After a year of classroom education, the first full class of students has started clinical training. They have spread out to study and work in medical clinics with an eye toward graduating in 2023. 

To signify the milestone, the class members donned their white coats during a ceremony held in San Luis Obispo in August. Dignity Health donated the white coats for the students. 

ATSU takes pride in what Sauers called the program’s “incredibly diverse” student body and has received awards for diversity in other programs. In the first year, ATSU admitted a class with 29% with members identifying as Hispanic or Latino, and saw that number grow to 38% for the second group. The number of Black students has doubled, from 9% in the first class to 18%. Only 3% of physician assistants identify as Black, he said.

About 60% of the incoming students are first-generation college students now enrolled in a graduate health professionals program, Sauers said. 

“That’s unheard of in graduate health professions programs,” Sauers said. 

Slightly more than 60% come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and 44% of the incoming group’s members came from health care shortage communities 

“They’re coming to us from the exact kind of places we want them to go back and work because they are health profession shortage areas,” Sauers said. 

For the first two classes, 21 students came from the Central Coast and 122 of the 180 came from California.

ATSU and Community Health Centers of the Central Coast hope to boost that number and have a billboard in the San Luis Obispo area to attract students to the medical program and then CHC.

From the first class, 27 of the 88 students will do their clinical training locally for at least part of the time. 

Twelve will spend their entire time training locally with seven at Community Health Centers of the Central Coast and five at Lompoc Valley Medical Center. 

ATSU continues to get more applications than spots available, Sauers said. 

“We really do want to recruit and educate more students from the Central Coast because we know that people are most likely to go practice where they’re from,” Sauers said. “And we know that there’s a need here.”

The first program in Santa Maria will focus on creating new physician assistants because of the need in the medical profession, ATSU officials said. 

“Our plans are to grow our campus and our presence here locally significantly in the years to come, predominantly based on the local needs, the regional needs and the national needs for health care providers,” Sauers said. 

Councilman Mike Cordero said he attended a class reunion in Santa Barbara, where a woman happily said her daughter was one of the Santa Maria ATSU students.

“It was just exciting to hear her talk about it,” Cordero said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.