Beginning PA School from a “Non-Traditional” Student’s Perspective

Sean Childress stands with wife and two kids

Conquering mental hurdles – I didn’t know I had.

Sean Childress (’21 MPAP Candidate) gives his perspective on entering PA school after working 10 years as an educator.


If someone were to have told me in the fall of 2016 that over the next three years, I would quit my job, take a bunch of prerequisite courses, move to a different state, and begin attending PA school, I truly would not have believed them. As I write this today, that is exactly what’s happened.

In the fall of 2016, you could find me working in a public high school in North Texas where I was teaching English & United States History while also coaching the varsity baseball team. We had just welcomed our daughter Wrigley to the world and as a new father of two children, I just thought my life was busy. At that time, my wife Kena, our son Nolan, and our newborn daughter had been living in the home that we thought would be our “forever” home that was finished being built in February 2016. We were both working as educators and raising our family in the only part of the world we had ever known.

The answer to why I would leave all of this “comfort” behind to chase this crazy dream of becoming a Physician Assistant is just that – comfort. I found myself unchallenged by my profession. I was no longer motivated and felt extremely comfortable to the point of boredom and depression.

As an undergraduate student (2004-2008), I had interest in the medical profession and even planned to apply to PA school. I had taken the majority of the prereq’s and even had 3000+ clinical hours built up. But the fear of failure deterred me from going for it. But this thought never left, and after a decade of teaching students to never quit and always go for their dreams, I took my own advice.

In July of 2019, moving from Texas as a “non-traditional” student, husband and father of two, I enrolled in the Physician Assistant program at Campbell University as part of the class of 2021.

Fears I didn’t know I had:

As I began PA school, there were many things I knew would be ahead of me. I had heard about the massive amount of material in short amounts of time. I knew that studying would remove any “down” time I may have had before. But what I didn’t anticipate was the concept of feeling inadequate or disconnected. Whether or not this is a common occurrence for the non-traditional type, I do not know – but I do know that it was for me.

It took me a while to feel comfortable amongst my classmates. My ability to allow myself to settle in was definitely hindered because I felt intimidated by their knowledge and experience. I knew my journey to get to PA school was so much different than anyone around me. Trying to make connections with people, who at the time I believed that I didn’t have any, was difficult.

The hardest part in the first couple of months was having to combat these thoughts of inadequacy while also trying to retain dense and complex information. I just didn’t expect that – largely because I have never felt that way in my life. It’s difficult to put into words exactly how it felt. I already had a mental block that I was “different” than my other classmates because this is a second career for me. Only a handful of us are parents. And I’m not the only one of us from out of state, but I am the only one of us from Texas – which I’m proud of, but that alone comes with its own set of exterior assumptions that people automatically associate with me.

It really wasn’t until a conversation with one of my professors and a subsequent conversation with my Wife that I was able move past some of these mental barriers. My professor urged me to avoid comparing myself to my classmates (which I denied to the professor, but I was doing it). My Wife urged me to remember why I was there, constantly saying that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it – and that one of the main reasons I finally went for it was to get out of my lifelong comfort zone.

In addition to these two conversations, what also allowed me to let my guard down and connect more with my classmates and professors was this – the realization that each of us took individual, separate journeys to arrive at the same destination. The journeys were so important, and they helped us find our why and shaped who we are. But the right now. The grind. The daily monotony that only we understand. That’s what connects us. Not what we know or what we don’t know. Not the experiences we have or don’t have. It’s the right here and right now. This thought pattern allowed for me to quit thinking about my inadequacies and my “non-traditional” journey. Allowing my mind to move past self-doubt has not only allowed for better connection with my classmates, but it has also allowed me to see things more clearly, even if what I am seeing is an amount of material that would be suitable for a semester long course, given in one day – but that’s another subject.

For any future (or current) student reading this – my advice is to listen on the first few days of class when people are telling you to lean on your classmates and that you’re about to experience something together that nobody else will understand but you. Admit when you don’t know something. Go to people who do know and have them show you. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know – just own it. There will be ups and downs with your grades, your self-confidence, and your motivation. But keep showing up. Someone on your row is feeling the same way. Use each other to get through it. Many of my classmates don’t even know how much they’ve helped me get through this thing so far, and I know will continue to do so.