For Stanford Medicine graduates, a remote commencement in a time of turmoil

Forced apart by the coronavirus pandemic and stirred by protests over racial injustice, students were honored during the School of Medicine’s first online commencement ceremony.

Talhah Zubair, who graduated with a medical degree from the Stanford School of Medicine, with his wife, Emma Lucken, and two children in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Talhah Zubair

The Stanford School of Medicine graduated hundreds of new physicians, physician assistants and scientists Saturday in its first virtual commencement ceremony, in which speakers highlighted not only the coronavirus pandemic but also racial injustice in the United States. 

In the hourlong ceremony, faculty and student speakers lamented COVID-19’s death toll and expressed their solidarity with protests over the killings of black Americans by police officers. But they also noted that the world urgently needs clinicians and scientists to tackle the pandemic — and that the graduates can use their status to address racial disparities.

“No Stanford Medicine class has ever dealt with the uncertainty and the turmoil that you have faced,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, the school’s dean. “We as a society are very much in need of healing, and you, our graduates of 2020, are ultimately dedicating your lives to helping heal. You are the leaders of tomorrow, forged in the crisis of today.”

This year, the school bestowed 89 medical degrees, 110 doctoral degrees and 88 master’s degrees, including 27 given to graduates of the inaugural master’s in physician assistant studies program. The name of every graduate appeared on the screen, and a video montage featured students reciting oaths to practice their professions equitably and with integrity. 

Homebound but celebrating

The graduates celebrated their achievements from their homes with family members, partners and friends who joined them in person or on video calls. Some of the graduates even wore mortarboards or hoods, which the school provided as part of a commencement package that also included notes from their academic advisers and M&Ms stamped with “Class of 2020” and “Stanford Medicine.”

Graduating students recited the Stanford Affirmation, an oath to practice medicine equitably and with integrity, on June 13 during the online commencement ceremony.

“Instead of walking across a stage, I walked the living room,” said Jon Sole, MD, who will begin a psychiatry residency at Stanford this year. “Instead of fancy hors d’oeuvres, we served Cap’n Crunch. I don’t think much can replace hugging your loved ones, but our virtual gathering spanned thousands of miles, two continents and a few time zones.”

During the online ceremony, many of the speakers addressed the pandemic, as well as racial inequality — and especially how the pandemic highlights racial disparities in health care.

“Perhaps the single most jolting aspect of this pandemic for me has been the way in which it has thrown a searing light into the ugly corners of racial and ethnic disparities that delineate health and health care in America,” Minor said. “And if the pandemic created a time of needing to acknowledge these brazen disparities, the horrific killing of George Floyd marked the moment when none of us could any longer look away.”

Kaylene Carter, who earned an MD at Stanford, with her newborn girl the day following the graduation ceremony.
Courtesy of Kaylene Carter

Floyd died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. His death sparked worldwide protests, including one at Stanford Medicine, and a national reckoning about racism and police conduct.

Two pandemics

Keynote speaker Yvonne Maldonado, MD, professor of pediatric infectious diseases and of health research and policy at the School of Medicine, said the graduates are facing two pandemics: racism and COVID-19. “One pandemic is of hate and violence, and the other is born of denial and indifference,” she said. 

Maldonado, who is also senior associate dean for faculty development and diversity, said she was confident the graduates could face and help solve the problems. “You can use your medical training and the privilege that comes with it to amplify the voices of people who go unheard,” she said.

Paloma Marin-Nevarez, who graduated with a medical degree, also spoke at commencement. “Black, Latinx and indigenous patients are dying at disproportionate rates from this virus,” she said. “As newly graduated physicians in 2020, this means an incredible responsibility to advocate for and care for all of our patients. Turning a blind eye to systemic injustice is a disservice to them.”

In lighter remarks, she also joked that the class of 2020 is cursed: Besides the pandemic that forced the graduates to celebrate apart, “We finished clerkships right before the shiny new hospital opened” and a qualifying exam became pass/fail.  

Tawaun Lucas, who graduated with a PhD in neurosciences, described his upbringing as an African American in Compton, California, as “battling stigmas, battling a failed education system, battling the failed police system.” 

He encouraged the graduates to help others build resilience. “Take a second to think about a time when a friend, a mentor, a coach helped you endure. Take that feeling, take those words, take that experience — pay it forward.”

Yoo Jung Kim, a newly minted MD, stretches out on the mostly empty School of Medicine campus.
Courtesy of Yoo Jung Kim

Zachary Stone, who earned his master’s degree in physician assistant studies, took a look back at his nearly three years at the medical school and noted a highlight: taking the first photo of a new dad with his baby in the delivery room. “There were lows, but also highs that kept me afloat,” he said. 

Will Talbot, PhD, associate dean for graduate education, said that a silver lining of the pandemic is that it has put a spotlight on the biomedical sciences. “The general public is now actively discussing antibodies, PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests, epidemiology, drug development and vaccines,” he said. 

“We will move past this crisis, and as we do, I hope that a renewed appreciation for science remains as a lasting good to come from having endured adversity.”



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