Paula Wales of Western Atlantic University School of Medicine: 5 Things That Should Be Done To…

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Paula Wales of Western Atlantic University School of Medicine: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

Giving women equal opportunities to pursue and thrive in STEM careers helps narrow the gender pay gap, enhances women’s economic security, ensures a diverse and talented STEM workforce, and prevents biases in these fields and the products and services they produce.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Paula Wales, EdD, Executive Dean and Chief Academic Officer, Western Atlantic University School of Medicine.

With more than 25 years of experience in U.S. and international medical education, Dr. Wales is among the foremost experts in both accreditation standards and curriculum oversight in North America and was most recently a founding member for the start-up of Nova Southeastern University’s Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Allopathic Medicine. A Harvard Macy Scholar, Paula has given more than 126 invited talks, peer-reviewed presentations, and faculty development workshops and has published more than 48 peer-reviewed abstracts, papers, and chapters, the majority of which focus on curricular evaluation and assessment in branch and/or geographically separated campuses. She currently serves as Executive Dean and Chief Academic Officer at Western Atlantic University School of Medicine

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I grew up in a family of very intelligent people who did not pursue “traditional” education. My father enlisted in the Marines at a young age and worked in factories while my mother worked in offices. From a young age, I had a passion for learning, and I preferred reading books over playing with toys. I even taught my maternal grandfather, who had little formal education, how to write his name in cursive when I was in the third grade.

As a first-generation college student, who was also the first person in my family to receive their high school diploma, education always seemed to be my passion. I was also inspired when my mother graduated from night school when I was in the third grade. Seeing her walk across the stage to receive her diploma was transformative for me. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be smart, just like my mom.

I received my undergraduate degree from Franklin College and started working as an auditor for a national sorority, teaching collegians across the country how to use an automated auditing system, which further fueled my passion for teaching. This led me to attend Auburn University for graduate school where I majored in adult education with a focus on training and development. At Auburn, I was part of a few workplace education grants that allowed me to help people improve their basic literacy skills for work promotions, enhancing their personal/family life, etc. This work inspired my dissertation on competency-based education.

At this same time, there was a movement in medical education to adopt competencies. The Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) hired me to implement their first competency-based curriculum. I fell in love with medical education because it integrated so many things that I value — teaching students and faculty, improving patients’ lives, and ultimately creating healthier communities.

Those values are what ultimately led me to my current role as Executive Dean and Chief Academic Officer of Western Atlantic University School of Medicine (WAUSM), an international medical school that provides opportunities for deserving U.S., Canadian, and international students to become outstanding, patient-centered MDs of the future. WAUSM is committed to offering opportunities for qualified and diverse U.S., Canadian, and international students who seek to acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in medical school, earn residency positions, and become outstanding, patient-centered physicians serving their communities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was at IUSM, we launched the “Relationship-Centered Care Initiative” (RCCI), which partially focused on “appreciative inquiry” — what is it at our school that makes you feel most impactful and grateful for your role? Rather than focusing on the critiquing negatives that could be improved, it encouraged everyone to participate in dialogue around what made us feel most impactful and what we wanted to see more of in our school.

Having this type of mindset early in my career shaped my ability to focus more on the positive things rather than hyper-focusing on the negatives. Being aware and evaluating both the positives and negatives in any organization is extremely important, but I believe that pursuing the positive results has a greater impact on people.

This appreciative inquiry focus on positive culture is still an important pillar of my identity as an educator. At WAUSM we intentionally seek to create a welcoming environment for our students to succeed in modern clinical settings and become outstanding physicians of the future.

I always sign my name on emails and letters with “Appreciatively, Paula”. Not only is that a nod to appreciative inquiry, but it is also an acknowledgment of how grateful I am for being able to help people pursue their passions, while they help others.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Building WAUSM from the ground up is absolutely thrilling. It is the best professional thing I have ever done. To start a school from scratch, to have the opportunity to influence the culture as it develops, to design and build the space so it’s fit for function, to design and constantly improve the curriculum that sets up students for success is very humbling and I am so appreciative to be working on this important project with my fellow colleagues at WAUSM.

WAUSM is a great place to work as we are recruiting excellent faculty who train diverse emerging physicians, who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to pursue a medical degree. At the same time, these diverse emerging physicians will provide excellent care and help combat the projected shortage of physicians in North America.

WAUSM is founded on a commitment to diversity because we want physicians who will serve all communities. We know patients want MDs who can relate to those they are serving.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

While my early career was focused on competency-based education, my expertise has evolved into medical education leadership, particularly in designing and starting new medical schools. During my 25 years in medical education, I have held decanal positions at IUSM (a large public school with nine geographically separated campuses), Ross University School of Medicine (a large international medical school), Nova Southeastern University’s Dr. Kiran C Patel College of Allopathic Medicine (a small, new, private MD program), and now WAUSM (a small, new, international MD program). I am grateful for these rich and diverse experiences.

I have started two new medical schools, WAUSM, and the Nova Southeastern University Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Allopathic Medicine. In both instances, I was a founding member of the school, recruited faculty, developed and designed curriculum, created policies and processes, led the accreditation efforts, accepted and trained students, and ultimately had oversight for the school. I’ve also served as a Harvard Macy Scholar; given more than 175 invited talks, peer-reviewed presentations, and faculty development workshops; have published more than 50 peer-reviewed abstracts, papers, and chapters, and worked on education grants totaling more than $3.8M.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

It is only natural for me to focus on the positives, so I would say when one stops to think about the fact that the U.S. education system provides free education from kindergarten through 12th grade for every member of society, that’s staggering. A type of system that values education for every single citizen is not in place in many other places in the world. For that reason alone, I believe the U.S. system is amazing.

It is not a perfect system by any means but is relatively impressive regarding the support that the system the United States has implemented, particularly for people who come from similar backgrounds as myself. I would not be able to accomplish what I currently do without the public education system.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Inclusivity: Having K-12 education free for every American citizen is invaluable to our society.

Diversity: The U.S. education system has an increased focus on diversity efforts, which are critical to improving our society. There is much work to be done in this area, and I am optimistic that we are headed in the right direction.

Opportunities for Education: The diversification in the education system allows students the opportunity to study any topic at any time. There are programs for pre-K-12, post-secondary, collegiates, workplace training, personal growth, and development, available to children and adults that encourage people to broaden their knowledge, develop skills, increase life satisfaction, and positively impact society. There are formal and informal programs to learn just about anything.

Supporting Industries and Training: The wealth of resources in the US creates vast opportunities for practical training related to one’s profession. Many colleges and universities have established affiliations with employers and researchers in different fields, thereby creating an avenue for students to obtain hands-on experience. These practical programs improve workers’ skills and compensation, influence productivity, and impact local, regional, national, and global economies.

Technology: Many schools incorporate the latest technology into their curricular efforts, encouraging students to obtain proficiency before entering postsecondary training or the workplace. Specialized technology, such as the newest medical equipment in medical schools, allows each student to gain experience that is applicable to their chosen profession.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Deficits in Funding: Funding is always an issue for schools and is, in fact, one of the biggest issues facing the American public education system today. For more than 90% of K-12 schools, funding comes from state and local governments, largely generated by sales and income taxes. Research shows, however, that funding has not increased with need — many states are still issuing funding that is lower than it was a decade ago. Lower funding means fewer teachers, fewer programs, and diminished resources.

Curricular Innovation: Education, like most other things, is constantly evolving and thus requires curricular innovations that allow the modern student optimal success.

Overcrowding: Smaller, manageable class sizes permit increased active learning, which can enhance the learning experience. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 14 percent of U.S. schools exceed capacity. When learners need more attention and teachers need time to create innovative curricular experiences, overcrowded classrooms make it even tougher for teaching and learning to occur.

Growing Problems With Student Poverty: According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 50% of the public-school population in the United States was made up of low-income students. This is a significant increase from 38% in 2001. Studies have shown that low-income students tend to perform lower than affluent students and family income is correlated with student achievement measured by performance on standardized tests. We need more support for these families and learners.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

STEM education programs are as individual as each of the schools that run them. They are influenced by teachers’ understanding and confidence when teaching STEM topics, community engagement, and support from school leadership.

Having a shared vision is crucial to the sustainability of such programs within a curriculum. It also allows teachers to contribute their own understanding and views on STEM education, which in turn leads to the development of a unique program that is designed for the students learning in that context. From that shared vision, teachers can identify areas for their own professional learning. For example, teachers may be interested in further developing their knowledge and skills in integrating aspects of engineering and mathematics.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Giving women equal opportunities to pursue and thrive in STEM careers helps narrow the gender pay gap, enhances women’s economic security, ensures a diverse and talented STEM workforce, and prevents biases in these fields and the products and services they produce.

The field is growing, and women deserve an equal opportunity to take openings within STEM. Increasing acceptance of females in STEM fields leads to more representation for women of all backgrounds. Breaking down this barrier will bring more equality to workplaces and schools.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Increasing awareness of women’s accomplishments and recruiting women into STEM classes or majors can help. Inclusive messages are necessary for representing women as well. Teachers should encourage young girls to take STEM-related courses and help them understand that the field is for everyone.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

If I truly had the power to influence the dynamic of the education system with the snap of a finger, I would change people’s view of the field of education. I would shift cultural priorities to be geared towards a greater emphasis on improving and valuing our education system to a more proactive approach.

Through a more pragmatic lens, I would increase awareness around what our education system requires to be truly functional and fully resource the industry more appropriately.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two quotes that I find deeply inspirational to my life and what I do every day.

One is “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, whenever you can.” The other is “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

These quotes inspire me to do the best work I can, always mindful of doing so in the service of others.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to sit down with my parents one more time. They impacted my life in so many positive ways that are difficult to capture in words. My mother and father are the inspiration for what I do every day and I am so grateful for the love and support they gave me and the lessons I learned from them.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For any information around the latest developments at WAUSM, readers can visit!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Paula Wales of Western Atlantic University School of Medicine: 5 Things That Should Be Done To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.