“Why would you want to come to the reservation?” the old man asked in surprise.

The question haunted Shane Merchant, now in his first year of physician assistant studies at Union College. As he helped treat the retired Winnebago man at the reservation clinic, Merchant shared his dream of becoming a physician assistant and serving on Native American reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota.

“I want to help your people,” he replied. “But I don’t know if I can make a difference.”

“When you throw a rock into a lake, it makes a ripple,” the old man smiled. “And that ripple makes a difference.”

More than 20 years after graduating from Norfolk High School, Merchant enrolled in college for the first time, intent on becoming a physician assistant to provide primary medical care services in rural Nebraska. “I could see the lack of adequate healthcare providers in rural areas,” he said. “That’s why I decided to become a PA.”

Finding a Home at Union

Union College’s graduate program in physician assistant studies proved to be the perfect fit. Merchant earned a degree in medical technology from the University of South Dakota (USD), and he intended to continue his training there. But while visiting other nearby PA programs, he found a home at Union.

“I wanted to come to Union because of their involvement in the community,” he said. “Helping those in need is part of their philosophy.” From giving seminars on sexually transmitted infections at local high schools to staffing a foot clinic for Lincoln’s homeless citizens, Union’s faculty find many ways for Merchant and his fellow PA students to sharpen their skills by serving the people of Lincoln.

But as a non-traditional student from rural Nebraska, Merchant also appreciates Union’s small class sizes, personal attention and Christian atmosphere. “At Union, I can see the important role that faith plays in healing,” he explained. “And the professors and students are like a family. I felt like they would do anything for me—and they have.” This learning environment has led to a 100-percent first time pass rate for Union graduates on the national PA certification exam four out of the past five years. And 100 percent of graduates have found jobs within three months of graduation in a field that www.CNNMoney.comrecently rated the second best career in the America.

A Passion to Serve

Merchant’s career goal came into focus after he began shadowing PAs and volunteering at clinics on several reservations while studying at USD. “I have seen American Indians suffer so many injustices and live in appalling conditions,” he said. “As a PA, will I be able to change that? Probably not. But I can make a difference in their health, one person at a time.”