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Medical school’s graduates recall a momentous year

Speakers at the Stanford School of Medicine 2021 virtual graduation ceremony looked back at a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing awareness of racial injustice.

- By Mandy Erickson

Tatiana Rosenblatt, a graduating medical student, on June 12. The on-campus ceremony for Stanford students earning advanced degrees appears onscreen in the background.
Courtesy of Tatiana Rosenblatt

The 2021 graduates of the Stanford School of Medicine begin their professional careers at a time when the world is desperate for their expertise in fighting a pandemic yet painfully aware of disparities in health care.

“You are all leaving school and entering the clinic at an incredibly critical juncture,” said keynote speaker Michelle Williams, ScD, on June 12 at the school’s commencement, which, for the second year in a row, was held online.

Williams, the faculty dean of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, added, “The world needs you. The world needs you not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has certainly laid bare so many vulnerabilities in our society, but the world also needs you because of the increased momentum in the global movement for racial justice.”

Although Stanford University held an in-person ceremony outdoors on Saturday for all students earning doctoral, master’s and professional degrees, many of the graduates went online for their ceremonies. The medical school, exercising caution as COVID-19 cases ebb, held a virtual commencement to bestow 104 medical students, 82 doctoral students and 76 master’s students, including 27 physician assistant students, with their degrees.

In a video recording shown as part of the School of Medicine's June 12 graduation ceremony, Michelle Williams, the faculty dean of Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, delivered the keynote address.
Stanford Medicine

“I wish I could see your smiling faces,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, the school’s dean. “But, in some sense, maybe it’s more appropriate for a 2021 graduation that I’m coming to you remotely because a lot of us have spent a lot of time the past year walking around the house, talking to people on a camera.”

“This last year has demonstrated more than at any time in my life the promise and power of biomedicine,” he continued. “From front-line workers in the emergency department … to those pursuing fundamental biological discoveries, this has been a story of remarkable accomplishment that’s saving lives everywhere. But this year has also exposed the long unfinished road to rebuild trust. Our society stared down inequities laid bare and as of-yet-unfulfilled promises in fairness, safety and justice.”

Reflecting on a tumultuous year

The student speakers reflected on the tumultuous year, praising the class of 2021 for persevering despite COVID-19 restrictions that kept them apart from one another and complicated their education. 

“We had the very unique experience of being trained in medicine at the same time that both the field of medicine, and the world, changed forever,” said Jackie Nguyen, who earned a master’s in physician assistant studies. 

School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor gave opening remarks at the ceremony in a video recording in which he congratulated the graduating students.
Stanford Medicine

Dorothy Tovar, who was granted a PhD in microbiology and immunology, praised the students’ adaptability: “I have seen agility in your ability to publish high-impact review papers when you couldn’t go into lab,” she said. “Others of you quickly pivoted to computational work and learned how to continue to produce research away from the bench.”

“The flexibility, strength, endurance and focus to complete a PhD in the last year is nothing short of extraordinary and what I believe truly distinguishes our class,” she added.

Ryan Brewster, who graduated with a medical degree, said the class of 2021 rose to the challenge of the pandemic. “As the world directed its gaze on our health care institutions, you did not shy away from the moment,” he said. “Between DIY haircuts and Zoom trivia nights, you collected PPE [personal protective equipment] by the thousands and battled misinformation.  You flocked to your labs and stood up for the most marginalized among us.”

Williams and Minor reminded the graduates to carve out time in their careers to take care of themselves. 

“Don’t let anyone make fun of you for being a generation that values work-life balance and self-care,” Minor said. When he graduated, he said, “Our culture was work, work, work till you drop. You have a better, healthier outlook.”

“Self-care is just as critical as patient care,” Williams said. “It’s not selfish and it’s not wrong to feel tired. It’s human.”

Graduating medical student Natasha Abadilla, decked out in academic regalia, holds her dog, Reeses, at Stanford's Memorial Court.
Courtesy of Natasha Abadilla

“Advocate for yourselves, your patients and for a healthier and more just world,” she added.  

Reciting the Stanford affirmation

The virtual commencement included recordings of the graduates reciting the Stanford affirmation. Most sat in front of walls, windows or bookcases when they recorded themselves. (One exception was Torsten Rotto, a graduating medical student, who stood in a verdant valley with a snow-capped mountain range in the distance.)

After the hourlong ceremony, the graduates were split into groups of 20 to 25. Each group was assigned to a separate Zoom meeting, where its members could see and speak with one another and with faculty members. 

In a meeting of graduates of the medical degree program, a handful of faculty members took turns calling the names of the graduates, some of whom had family members place green-and-red academic hoods on them. 

The newly minted doctors offered a few words, mostly thanking parents, spouses and professors.

“I’m very grateful to be the first doctor in my family,” said Sandrene Cassells, choking back tears, after her mother had draped her with a hood.

The faculty then gave a few more words of congratulations and encouragement. Preetha Basaviah, MD, clinical professor of primary care and population health, said, “We know you’re going to make the world a better place.”

Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

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