Lock Haven Physician Assistant Students Gain Valuable Experience in Costa Rica

Lock Haven


A core part of the mission of the Commonwealth University physician assistant (PA) program is to educate and train highly-skilled individuals who have expertise in the health care needs of the medically underserved. In addition, they will be prepared to promote improvement in the medical and social systems affecting underserved populations' health.

In support of this mission, students enrolled in the PA program at Lock Haven have traditionally taken the course "underserved populations," which focuses on various aspects of the U.S. healthcare system that impact the health of underserved populations, including historical aspects, policy and healthcare system issues, as well as social and cultural influences. 

Craig Ernst, PA faculty at Lock Haven, designed a new course with a focus on global aspects of healthcare. This new course, "Underserved Populations: A Global Perspective," addresses concepts such as cultural aspects of healthcare, social determinants of health, the role of folk medicine and religion on health, bias and disparities in healthcare, a comparative analysis of healthcare systems and the challenges facing underserved populations globally. The culminating component of this course includes a two-week immersive cultural experience with a study abroad trip to Costa Rica.


The new course was first offered during the Fall 2022 semester with 13 students enrolled, and in January, Ernst and the students were joined by Curtis Grenoble, then PA studies department chair, for the study abroad component of the course.

Upon arriving in Costa Rica, students spent time in the capital city of San Jose learning about the country's history and culture. The group then traveled to the town of Monteverde where the first homestay experience was completed, allowing students to experience the lifestyle and culture of local residents.

"Costa Rica was the most breathtaking experience," said student, Priya Patel. "We got to learn about their culture, healthcare system, and made many new friends."


Community service was completed at a local coffee farm, where students had the opportunity to interact with migrant farm workers, many of whom were from Nicaragua. While at the farm, students also had the opportunity to learn about natural farming practices and how coffee is grown, harvested and prepared.
The second week was spent in Playa Flamingo, a coastal community located in the Guanacaste Province on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. A second homestay was completed at this location, allowing students to gain additional experience with Costa Rican culture, foods and home environments, while living with a different host family. 

Students completed three hours of Spanish language instruction each afternoon and prepared for a health fair held for the residents of Lorena at the end of the week, which included instruction on dental hygiene for the children, blood pressure readings, and another presentation on the use of menstrual cups.
"In a world of growing diversities, I believe it is important that future providers are introduced to a variety of cultures, beliefs, and customs that could alter medical courses and how the patient is approached or treated," said student Vetzrel Adidala. "This course introduced me to new cultural practices that I could encounter as a provider and challenged me to think about my own feelings on diversities through online discussions. This knowledge was then applied to real life scenarios during the course's study abroad portion to Costa Rica. I was placed in the shoes of my future patients and the obstacles they may experience, such as language barriers or lack of resources, which can greatly affect a patient's medical journey."

Community service was completed each day in the small village of Lorena, where students were able to interview residents to obtain health histories, providing significant insights to the health care needs of this remote community.

Students also assisted with preparing construction materials for a new roof and doors for the house of a local resident and the installation of a fence around a soccer field.

"The trip was a great success in providing students with a cultural immersion experience, while learning about the successes and challenges of the Costa Rican healthcare system, including the needs of the medically underserved," Grenoble said.

Graduate students in the PA program at Lock Haven who participated in the trip were Vetzrel Adidala, Elise Craft, Chas Figley, Eli Henninger, Grace Hepler, Emily Miller, Maggie Nangle, Priya Patel, Morgan Perry, Jack Petroccione, Matt Popovich, Aneesa Siddiqui, and Emily Thorlakson.